WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrat Jeff Merkley defeated Republican Sen. Gordon Smith in Oregon, the Portland Oregonian projected on Wednesday, to further expand Democrats’ majority in the new Congress that convenes in January.
With the results of three Senate races still to be determined from Tuesday’s election, Democrats have now gained six seats to raise their majority in the 100-member Senate to 57.
If these remaining contests all go to Democrats, they would end up, for the first time in three decades, with the 60 Senate seats needed to pass legislation even in the face of Republican procedural hurdles.
“Democrats would have to run the table, but they still have a slim shot at doing it,” said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
To reach 60, Democrats would have to win a runoff in Georgia, a recount in Minnesota and a come-from-behind victory in Alaska. “We don’t see it happening,” a Democratic party aide said. “But we’ll see.”
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said regardless of how many seats her Democratic party ends up with, it’s ready to work with Obama, particularly on a stimulus package to ease the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression.
“Our priorities have tracked the Obama campaign priorities,” Pelosi told a Capitol Hill news conference.
“The growth of our economy, the education of our children, the health of our people, the end of dependence on foreign oil and the end of the war in Iraq.”
Merkley, speaker of the Oregon House, defeated Smith, a two-term moderate, in a tight race that wasn’t decided until a day after polls closed.
A three-way contest in Georgia involving incumbent Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss appeared headed toward a December 2 runoff.
Winners had also yet to be declared in two other races involving Republican incumbents — Sens. Norm Coleman in Minnesota and Ted Stevens in Alaska.
Democrats were projected to gain 20 seats in the 435-member House, raising their majority to 255. Seven races remained undecided on Wednesday.
Even if Senate Democrats fall short of a “filibuster-proof majority” of 60, they expect to win over at least a few moderate Republicans in the new Congress to pass major legislation.
Democrats won the Senate and House two years ago, but Republicans have routinely blocked legislation on matters from withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq to health care and energy.
“The American people have called for a new direction,” Pelosi said. “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.”
Because of a record federal deficit and the deteriorating economy, Democrats will have to limit or postpone any big new spending programs, including measures to expand health care, upgrade education and advance renewable energy technology.
House Republican Leader John Boehner congratulated Obama, but made it clear he would be challenged on Capitol Hill.
“Congressional Republicans in the next two years will be judged on our own record, our own vision and our own agenda — and our willingness to hold Washington Democrats accountable,” Boehner said in announcing he would seek re-election as his party’s leader.
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, when Bill Clinton led their ticket, that Democrats won both chambers of Congress as well as the White House.
Editing by David Wiessler and David Alexander