WASHINGTON — The new Congress will be slightly more Democratic and more female though House Republicans still hold a majority large enough to confront and confound President Barack Obama as the nation grapples with a slow-moving economic recovery and record deficits.
Senate Democrats, once scrambling to save vulnerable incumbents and their tenuous numerical advantage, surprisingly gained a net of two seats as undecided races were settled Wednesday. The final results gave women a high-water mark of 20 in the 100-member chamber as Hawaii's Mazie Hirono, Nebraska's Deb Fischer, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota were elected to join 15 returning female senators.
"I think what women bring to our Senate is a reality that voters across the country understand and reflect," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chaired her party's campaign committee. "When they see women speaking, there are people who say, `I understand that.'"
In Montana, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester turned back a challenge from Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg when the vote count wrapped up Wednesday. In North Dakota's open race, GOP candidate Rep. Rick Berg conceded to Heitkamp, the former state attorney general.
Democrats will hold 53 seats to 45 for the Republicans, with the certainty that Vermont independent Bernie Sanders will align with the Democrats and the expectation that Maine independent Angus King will do the same to give Democrats an effective 55-45 majority. King said he could make a decision as early as next week when he heads to Washington. He received a congratulatory call from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., but said he never heard from the Republican leadership.
In the House, Republicans will have a smaller majority but not so small that it impacts their ability to control the chamber's agenda and challenge Obama and Senate Democrats.
"The message I got is Americans don't want a runaway Congress and administration," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who is expected to head his party's campaign committee next year. "If they wanted one-party control, they could have done that this election cycle. They didn't do that."
With only a smattering of House races still undecided, Republicans had won 233 seats, were assured of another after a December runoff between two Louisiana Republicans and led in an Arizona contest. That's well more than the 218 needed to control the chamber, but less than the 242 seats they hold in the current Congress, including two seats vacated by GOP lawmakers.
Months of campaigning and millions of dollars spending left Washington with the same lineup: a Democratic president and a divided Congress. Lawmakers spoke hopefully about bridging the divide and tackling issues such as immigration, but divisions within their ranks, a still formidable tea party presence and even the next round of congressional races could undercut any agenda.
The rancor of the legislative session and the campaign clearly still lingered.
"I will do everything within my power to be as conciliatory as possible," Reid told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference. "But I want everyone to also understand, you can't push us around."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who had said his goal was to make Obama a one-term president, said Republicans will cooperate with the president. "To the extent he wants to move to the political center, which is where the work gets done in a divided government, we'll be there to meet him half way," McConnell said.
Congress can't wait until January to deal with the so-called fiscal cliff of expiring Bush-era tax cuts and automatic spending reductions to defense and domestic programs. If unresolved, economists warn that the double financial hit could plunge the nation into another recession.
A nervous Wall Street reacted Wednesday, with the Dow dropping more than 250 points.
Obama telephoned House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Reid, McConnell and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to discuss the legislative agenda for the rest of the year. The White House said the president reiterated his commitment to a bipartisan consensus.
Elected to the Senate on Tuesday were moderate to conservative Democrats such as Indiana Rep. Joe Donnelly, Virginia's Tim Kaine and Heitkamp who may see bipartisanship as vital to their political survival in swing and Republican-leaning states. Massachusetts and Wisconsin tapped two liberal Democrats – Warren and Baldwin.
"I think we have some fresh faces coming in from both spectrums," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in an interview. "The Democratic Party is the face of America and basically they heard the same thing I heard. People came up to me a thousand times a day, `Will you please work together, will you please get something done for the sake of my family, my children, this great country of ours.'"
But divisions among Democrats – as well as the ones within the GOP – could prove problematic for House and Senate leaders. Reid will be looking to protect his majority as Democrats again face some disagreeable math in 2014, when they will be defending 20 Senate seats to the GOP's 13.
McConnell not only will have to keep his surly factions united, but he faces his own re-election bid in two years.
In the House, 10 members of the huge tea party-backed freshman class of 2010 lost, 83 of whom sought re-election. Freshman tea party champion Rep. Allen West of Florida was behind Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy by nearly 2,500 votes but refusing to concede. It was the most expensive House race in the country, with the two rivals and their allies spending a combined $23.8 million, about two-thirds of it for West.
"The tea party is a strong movement," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, among the re-elected 2010 freshmen.
Around 30 or 40 House Republicans – not all of whom were freshmen in 2010 – have proven difficult for GOP leaders to corral on some issues, including on compromises eventually reached with Obama and Democrats over averting government shutdowns and defaults.
Democrats won 192 seats and led in eight races, giving them up to 200 seats next Congress. They controlled 193 this year, including three vacancies.
It remained unclear Wednesday whether Pelosi will seek to lead the party in the next Congress. In September, the former House speaker told reporters that it would be up to her fellow Democrats and her family "after all this time" to decide her fate.
One major change: For the first time in the House's history, more than half of its Democratic members next year will not be white men, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. So far about 99 of the 192 declared House Democratic winners Tuesday are women, black, Hispanic or Asian.