Democrats sweep both chambers

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- With a decisive victory in Virginia's tight Senate contest, Democrats completed their takeover sweep of Congress yesterday in a midterm election that President Bush described as a "thumping" defeat.

As final votes were still being tallied, the magnitude of the Democratic victory appeared to be sinking in on Bush and other Republicans. The president began an expected shake-up of his Iraq policy by dismissing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and the top Republican in the House, Speaker Dennis Hastert, announced that he was quitting the party leadership.

House Democrats picked up at least 27 new seats in the next Congress, about twice the number needed to gain control of that chamber. It was only the second time in more than a half-century that the House has switched hands. Democratic candidates were leading in three other contests that remained too close to call.

In the Senate, a dwindling GOP majority vanished after Democrats knocked off incumbents in the two remaining tossup races. The change in Senate control meant that the 2006 vote was in line with a historical pattern dating back to the start of the popular election of senators: Every time a party has gained control of the House, it has taken over the Senate in the same election.

Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, dragged down by ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, was narrowly defeated in Montana by Democratic challenger Jon Tester, an organic farmer with a flat-top haircut and ample girth. New returns in Virginia gave Democratic challenger James Webb a decisive advantage over Sen. George Allen in the nation's closest Senate race and provided Democrats with the crucial sixth seat they needed to take charge in the Senate.

Webb and Tester both claimed victory, though neither Burns nor Allen have conceded. Allen's campaign, in a statement, said the senator would have more to say when a re-canvass of the returns by local election officials is completed over the next few days.

At a post-election news conference, Bush congratulated Democrats on their victories and said he recognized that voters wanted "a new direction" on Iraq and other problems facing the country. He blamed disapproval of his Iraq policy and ethics scandals involving Republican politicians for the midterm defeat.

"The message," Bush said, "was clear. The American people want their leaders in Washington to set aside partisan differences, conduct ourselves in an ethical manner and work together to address the challenges facing our nation."

The "cumulative effect" of the election was "not too close. It was a thumping," he said.

Crucial to the balance of power in the capital was the Virginia Senate race, which underscored, once again, the importance of a relative handful of votes in today's highly polarized political environment.

Democrat Webb won by a micron-thin margin of 7,200 votes out of nearly 2.4 million cast. The Associated Press contacted election officials in all 134 localities where voting occurred, obtaining updated numbers yesterday. About half the localities said they had completed their post-election canvassing, and nearly all had counted outstanding absentees. Most were expected to be finished by Friday. Virginia has had two statewide vote recounts in modern history, but both resulted in vote changes of no more than a few hundred votes.

Webb's victory essentially gave Democrats a 51-49 majority in the new Senate, which takes over in January. (In addition to 49 Democratic senators, two independents, Joseph I. Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, reportedly will caucus with the Democrats.)

The Webb win also marked a return to Democratic power in both houses of Congress after a 12-year hiatus that began with the Newt Gingrich-led conservative Republican revolt of 1994.

The new Senate majority guarantees that Democrats will have far greater leverage to block Bush's judicial nominees and executive-branch appointments, and will be able to scrutinize the administration's performance through oversight investigations.

Earlier, Republicans signaled their intention to fight for Allen - and a 50-50 split that would keep the Senate in their hands if he is declared the winner. Under state law, the loser can request a recount if the margin is less than 0.5 percent. But that can't happen until after the state Board of Elections certifies the election Nov. 27.

Privately, Republican sources, who spoke on condition they not be identified, played down the likelihood that Allen would be able to overcome a gap of 7,000 votes and suggested that the senator might decide not to contest the result unless the canvass were to narrow that gap considerably.

A recount is considered even less likely in Montana, where Burns had yet to concede. His Democratic foe, Tester, the president of the state senate, was relentless in attacking the senator's ties to convicted lobbyist Abramoff and his allies, who gave more money to Burns than to any other member of Congress.

Other Republicans defeated Tuesday included Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri, who was unseated by Democratic state auditor Claire McCaskill, one of two new women senators, bringing the total to 16, a record. Democrat Amy Klobuchar, a prosecuting attorney, won Minnesota's open Senate seat, and at least three more women were elected to the House, raising the total in that chamber to at least 70.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the current House Democratic leader, is to become the first woman to serve as House speaker when the new Congress meets in early January.

At least 20 Republican House members were unseated in the midterm vote. No Democrats lost, though a Democrat in Georgia, where the Republican legislature redrew district lines to make them more favorable to Republicans, held a narrow lead in a race that was still too close to call.

More than 78 million people voted in Tuesday's election, but overall turnout was lower than predicted, according to preliminary figures from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University. Nationwide, estimated turnout was 40.4 percent of the voting-age population, higher than the last midterm election but lower than the recent high of 42.1 percent in 1982.

Even before the contours of the new Congress were complete, the competition for leadership posts began heating up. Pennsylvania Rep. John P. Murtha, who is challenging Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland for the job of majority leader, was sharply critical of Hoyer in a series of broadcast interviews.

Murtha, a decorated Marine veteran from the Vietnam era who, at Pelosi's behest, led the Democratic attack on Bush's Iraq policy, said Hoyer didn't know what he was talking about when it came to defense issues.

Hoyer, who claims to have enough support to prevail in the intraparty contest, declined to respond directly.

Hoyer is to join Pelosi for lunch with Bush at the White House today. The president phoned to congratulate them early yesterday and extend the invitation.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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