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Democrats expand majorities in Congress

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - By expanding their control of the U.S. Congress, Democrats are positioned to quickly act on much of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s ambitious agenda when lawmakers reconvene in January.

But triumphant Democrats in Tuesday’s election fell a few Senate seats short of a lofty goal: obtaining for the first time in three decades the 60 needed in the 100-member chamber to clear Republican procedural hurdles.

Still, Democrats expressed hope that they will be able to win over a few moderate Republicans to pass major measures, including ones to begin to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and end the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression.

With a number of races yet to be decided as of early on Wednesday, Democrats, who now control the House of Representatives, 235-199 with one vacancy, were projected to pickup about 20 seats, somewhat fewer than the number earlier predicted by private analysts.

Senate Democrats had gained at least five to reach 56. They were hopeful of gaining at least a few more, including the one held by Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who ran for re-election despite being convicted last month of corruption.

“Tonight, the American people have called for a new direction,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

“A very important part of that change will be the bipartisanship, the civility in which we engage in our dialogue and the fiscal responsibility that we bring to our legislation,” Pelosi said.

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Democrats have no choice but to show fiscal restraint.

Because of a record federal deficit, the newly enacted $700 billion Wall Street bailout and the threat of a deep recession, Democrats will have to limit or postpone any big new spending programs, such as ones to expand health care, upgrade education and advance renewable energy technology.

House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio congratulated Obama, but made it clear to the victor that he faced tough times on Capitol Hill.

Boehner charged that Obama “has sketched a troubling policy roadmap that will be run through a Congress that was purchased by powerful liberal special interests.”

Riding an anti-Republican wave generated largely by the unpopularity of President George W. Bush, and a crush of enthusiasm created by the charismatic Obama, Democrats had one of their best elections in more than a decade.

In fact, it was the first time since 1992 that Democrats won both chambers of Congress as well as the White House when Bill Clinton led their ticket.

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Democrats won the Senate and House two years ago, but Republicans routinely blocked legislation on matters from withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and additional economic stimulus to health care and energy.

“They (Republicans) are going to have to be more cooperative. They have to realize their old way of just blocking everything just doesn’t work for them,” a Democratic leadership aide said.

“Heck, their party got its butt kicked tonight and (Senate Republican Leader Mitch) McConnell barely won another term,” the aide said.

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Two former Democratic governors, Mark Warner of Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, won seats held by Republicans, retiring Sen. John Warner and Sen. John Sununu, respectively.

In addition, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, wife of 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, was unseated by Democratic state senator Kay Hagan.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Udall won the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and his cousin, Democratic Mark Udall of Colorado, won the seat being vacated by Republican Wayne Allard.

Along with McConnell, a few other challenged Republicans survived.

“Winston Churchill once said that the most exhilarating feeling in life is to be shot at -- and missed,” McConnell declared after his victory over Democrat Bruce Lunsford.

The grim election night for Republicans was symbolized in part by the fact that Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, the final Republican in the largely liberal and moderate Northeast United States, was among those defeated.

With Republicans losing dozens of seats to Democrats in two consecutive elections, a shake-up of party leadership on Capitol Hill already had begun.

Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, the House’s third-ranking Republican, said he will not a leadership post in the new Congress.

“I believe it is time to step off the leadership ladder,” Putnam wrote Republican colleagues in an open letter.

Editing by David Wiessler