* Democrats eke out narrow victories in two Republican
* Both parties start to dig in on fiscal cliff negotiations
* More polarized replacements for moderate Democrats,
By David Lawder
WASHINGTON, Nov 7 Democrats defied the odds to
increase their thin majority in the U.S. Senate by two seats on
Wednesday, eking out narrow victories in Republican-leaning
Montana and North Dakota.
Jon Tester, who had been considered one of the Democrats'
most vulnerable senators in Tuesday's election and a key
takeover target for Republicans in Montana, defeated
Representative Denny Rehberg by a 48.8 percent to 44.7 percent
margin. Libertarian candidate Dan Cox siphoned off 6.5 percent
of the vote.
In North Dakota, Republican candidate Rick Berg conceded the
final Senate race on Wednesday afternoon to Democrat Heidi
Heitkamp, who held on to a razor-thin lead of fewer than 3,000
votes, which had qualified for a recount.
The two wins give the Democrats a 55-45 Senate majority -
including the expected support of two independent senators -
compared with 53-47 currently.
The shift slightly strengthens the hand of Senate Majority
Leader Harry Reid in the chamber, where significant legislation
often requires 60 votes to move forward.
Reid told a news conference he wants to reform Senate rules
to make it easier to pass legislation with a simple Democratic
majority, but said he was willing to negotiate with Republicans
"any time, any issue."
As Congress pivots to deal with the year-end "fiscal cliff"
of expiring tax cuts and the launch of automatic spending cuts,
Reid also underscored some areas on which he is less willing to
compromise in a deficit-reduction deal.
"We are not going to mess with Social Security," he said,
repeating a Democratic campaign pledge to protect seniors'
retirement and health-care benefits.
GAINS IN MASSACHUSETTS, INDIANA
Many political pundits had thought Democrats would do well
to barely hang onto Senate control in Tuesday's election, losing
one or two seats in the process. However, in addition to
Tester's seat in Montana, they successfully defended seats
considered vulnerable in Missouri, Virginia and Connecticut and
wrested seats away from Republicans in Massachusetts and
The Republican setback was in part self-inflicted, the
result of internal battles waged in the party and controversial
comments about rape and abortion.
Had conservative Republican Richard Mourdock not defeated
veteran moderate Richard Lugar in Indiana's primary, for
example, that seat might have stayed in Republican hands instead
of being won by Democrat Joe Donnelly on Tuesday.
Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, who kept her seat on
Tuesday, was considered unlikely to win in the conservative
state until Representative Todd Akin won the state's Republican
Akin and Mourdock stumbled badly with remarks about abortion
that were widely criticized as unsympathetic to rape victims,
handing Senate Democrats two of Tuesday's biggest wins.
The election left the Senate somewhat more polarized, with
generally fewer moderates and more conservatives among the
Republicans and more liberals among the Democrats.
Republicans remained firmly in control of the House of
Representatives, ensuring that Congress still faces a deep
partisan divide in deficit-reduction talks aimed at replacing
automatic spending cuts and determining future tax rates.
With President Barack Obama retaining the White House, the
status-quo result portends more partisan gridlock.
"That means the same dynamic. That means the same people who
couldn't figure out how to cut deals for the past three years,"
said Ethan Siegel, an analyst who tracks Washington politics for
Republicans managed to flip one Democratic Senate seat, in
Nebraska, where conservative candidate Deb Fischer, endorsed by
former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin,
defeated former Democratic governor Bob Kerrey in the race for
the seat of retiring Democrat Ben Nelson.
Two victories underscored the Senate's shift away from
moderates who are more able to find common ground.
Elizabeth Warren, the winner over moderate Senator Scott
Brown in Massachusetts, is a consumer activist and Harvard Law
School professor unpopular with Wall Street. In a victory
speech, she vowed to "hold the big guys accountable."
"To all the seniors who deserve to retire with the security
they earned, we're going to make sure your Social Security
benefits are protected and that millionaires and billionaires
pay their fair share," Warren told supporters.
In Texas, the seat of a retiring Republican, Kay Bailey
Hutchison, was filled in an easy victory by Republican Ted Cruz,
also a favorite of the Tea Party.
As Congress starts this week to seek a way to deal with the
year-end expiration of Bush-era tax cuts and the launch of
automatic spending cuts, the results point to a continued bitter
Republican House Speaker John Boehner said voters wanted to
continue the Republicans' agenda, but pledged to work "with any
"With this vote, the American people also made clear there's
no mandate for raising tax rates," Boehner told party activists
With Obama's re-election and the Democratic Party retaining
a m ajority in the Senate, Democrats are expected to be
emboldened in pushing their plan for tax fairness - cutting
budget deficits by asking wealthy Americans to pay higher tax
rates, while extending lower rates for the middle class.
But less than two months remain before tax cuts enacted
under President George W. Bush expire on Dec. 31, thrusting
higher rates on all Americans. Two days later, $109 billion in
across-the-board spending cuts begin to bite. If unchecked by
Congress, the fiscal cliff would suck some $600 billion out of
the U.S. economy next year.
Top Senate Republican McConnell, who will face tougher
bargaining on the Democratic side, said voters simply gave Obama
"more time" to fix the country's problems. Putting a brave face
on the results, he called on the president to work with
Republicans on the fiscal cliff and tax reform.
"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.