From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
A recount in Montana and a canvass in Virginia are all that separate Republicans from keeping control of the Senate and their ability to confirm presidential nominees, as most had expected they'd do, and a devastating loss of both chambers of Congress. At this writing, the breakdown of the Senate is 49-49, with Independent Bernie Sanders and renegade Democrat Joe Lieberman voting with Democrats. The present breakdown of the House is 234 Democrats to 201 Republicans; at least 19 Republican members have lost their seats.
At this writing, the Montana Senate race has come down to 1,735 votes, with Democrat Jon Tester leading GOP Sen. Conrad Burns with about 1,000 votes left to be counted. Final results are expected this morning, after which there may be a recount. In Virginia, Democrat Jim Webb leads GOP Sen. George Allen by 7,847 votes. Canvassing begins there this morning. Virginia election officials and the candidates have 10 days to count the votes, including the provisional and absentee ballots, and then call for a recount if one is desired by either side.
President Bush surely would rather have kept control of Congress than gotten his comprehensive immigration reform bill. But for a president who may not be inclined to change course on his Iraq and domestic policies, despite last night's clear referendum on his presidency, it's one of a few topics on which he can strike a bipartisan note today without being seen as yielding to his new circumstances. As we've suggested before, Bush's prospects of getting a guest-worker plan and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants actually improve with a Democrat-run House. Another potentially bipartisan legislative avenue recently mentioned by the White House is energy policy.
One key domestic item Bush opposes which could now have the votes to withstand a presidential veto is expanded federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Back in July 2006, such a bill passed the Senate, 63-37. Assuming that Tester and Webb hold onto their leads, Democrats would likely pick up four additional votes for the funding, providing a veto-proof margin.
There's no reason to expect any immediate change in the Administration's approach to Iraq. Just yesterday, White House spokesman Tony Snow added US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to the list of top officials heading up the war, along with Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, who aren't going anywhere anytime soon. The Administration has said its Iraq policy won't change regardless of the election outcome. NBC's Richard Engel reports this morning that some effort has been made to inform Iraqis that the outcome won't affect US troop levels.
But with a Democrat-run House, the Administration could expect its Iraq policy to be investigated at a number of levels, and if Democrats also claim control of the Senate, it could result in real changes. Back in June 2006, the Reed-Levin amendment to begin withdrawing forces from Iraq this year went down to defeat, 39-60. Assuming that Tester and Webb hold onto their leads, Democrats would likely pick up at least five more votes (Brown, Casey, McCaskill, Tester, Webb) on a similar amendment.
As Bush and other prominent Republicans like re-elected Rep. Tom Reynolds and Senate campaign committee chair Elizabeth Dole face the press and each other today, one party elder tells First Read that the big question will be whether the party finds the right balance between how much of last night was due to the war (which alienated moderate and independent voters), how much to the party coming loose from its moorings on spending and smaller government (which turned off conservatives), and how much to assorted other issues. That effort will be complicated by the party's shrunken ranks of moderates in both chambers.
NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that Bush began making his series of phone calls at 7:00 am. Calls are being put in to presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, outgoing Speaker Dennis Hastert, and the rest of the House and Senate leadership. He invited Pelosi and current House Minority Whip (and aspiring Majority Leader) Steny Hoyer to lunch tomorrow, and invited the Senate Democratic leaders to coffee on Friday. Advisors say Bush is extending a "strong spirit of goodwill and cooperation." We'd note that Bush has a model to follow, should he choose to follow it, in re-elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).
As Democrats take their victory lap, the question for them is whether they are aware that they didn't win so much as Republicans lost. Will they think they have a mandate, as Bush claimed he had in November 2004? Or will they see a new majority as an opportunity to earn the trust of voters and dangle some publicly popular items before voters as an incentive to elect a Democratic president in 2008?
Pelosi, who's expected to be elected Speaker-designate by her caucus next week (she'll get the official title in January), holds a press conference right after Bush's today and does interviews with the three network anchors. Her task will be to strike a bipartisan tone, not only to send a signal to Republicans, but also to the ranks of red-state Democrats who will now pad the party's ranks on Capitol Hill. House campaign committee chair Rahm Emanuel, national party chair Howard Dean, and governors' association chair Bill Richardson also hold press conferences. The party now holds a majority of governorships -- 28 -- for the first time since 1994.
Democrats gambled in not putting forth a more substantive agenda than their "Six for '06," a collection of long unpassed items like a minimum wage increase and federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. They also gambled in not trying to come up with a unified position on Iraq, and it paid off. Republicans in Washington wound up being as divided over Iraq today as they ever accused Democrats of being. But as the Cook Political Report's Jennifer Duffy points out, some of these new Senate Democrats may have a hard time delivering on what they've told voters they'll do on Iraq.
Not putting forth a more substantive agenda may have repercussions for Democrats down the road. Many of the seats they won last night simply by virtue of not being Republicans -- including PA-4, PA-10, and OH-18 -- could turn out to be rentals that they'll be hard-pressed to retain in 2008.
Speaking of 2008, winners among that pack include: Sen. Evan Bayh (D), who campaigned hard for his state's three new Democratic members of Congress; and Sens. Barack Obama (D) and John McCain (R), who campaigned for seemingly everyone. Among the losers: Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who saw not only his own seat in Massachusetts fall to Democrats, but five other GOP-held governorships under his stewardship as chair of the Republican Governors Association; and Gov. George Pataki (R), who can't exactly claim to have boosted his party in New York. On the fence is Kerry, who also raised money and stumped for a lot of Democratic candidates, but stepped in it at the end.