Shape of Chamber Hangs in Balance

Former New Hampshire governor and U.S. Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen, center, greets people before voting at Madbury Town Hall.
Former New Hampshire governor and U.S. Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen, center, greets people before voting at Madbury Town Hall. (By Darren Mccollester -- Getty Images)
By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008

The final shape of the new Senate lingered in doubt yesterday with a runoff likely in Georgia, recounts pending in Minnesota and possibly Oregon, and uncertainty over whether the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history had held on to his Alaska seat barely a week after being convicted on corruption charges.

A day after the elections, the lack of resolution in the four races left the central dynamic of the Senate over the next two years hanging in the balance. The outcomes, which will become clear over the next week to a month, will determine the extent of Democrats' command of the chamber -- how much they will need to accommodate Republican views across the spectrum of legislation.

Tuesday's vote expanded the Democrats' majority by five senators, giving the party at least 54 seats, plus two independents who work with the majority. At stake in the four outstanding races is how close the Democrats will come to a 60-member majority that would inoculate them against GOP filibusters to obstruct bills.

"The difference between 56 and 60, that's a big difference," said Rebecca Fisher, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which works to elect GOP members. "This is definitely going to be the game everyone watches now that the presidential race is over."

Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) offered few specifics about the Senate's agenda, saying, "This is a new chapter for our nation, and I am looking forward to working with my colleagues in Congress and our new president-elect to tackle the many issues that the American people have called on us to address."

His spokesman, Jim Manley, said Reid "believes it's important Democrats handle their majority in a way the Republicans didn't, by working with members of both parties to craft smart legislation."

Manley also said Reid plans to address a delicate partisan issue soon: whether to remove Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), who won his last election as an independent after losing a Democratic primary, as chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Lieberman was an outspoken advocate of the GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and particularly irritated Democrats with negative comments he made at the Republican National Convention about President-elect Barack Obama. Manley said Reid intended to meet with Lieberman this week.

Given the stakes in the unresolved Senate races for the parties and the candidates, the jockeying yesterday was, in some cases, intense.

In Minnesota, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's campaign Web site said "Victory" in large block letters. Four of his GOP Senate colleagues issued congratulatory statements, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who narrowly won reelection.

Such certitude was premature. By last night, with all of Minnesota's precincts reporting and 2.9 million votes cast, Coleman led by 477 over Democratic challenger Al Franken, a former "Saturday Night Live" writer and actor, best-selling author and talk-radio host. Under the state's election rules, that margin is narrow enough to trigger an automatic recount that will begin in about two weeks, once the tallies are certified.

Franken issued a statement predicting that the recount "could change the vote tallies significantly." His campaign had received reports of voting "irregularities," he said, including a shortage of registration materials for voters who wanted to sign up on the spot Tuesday in parts of Minneapolis.

Mike Ritchie, Minnesota's secretary of state, said the next weeks are "going to be a combination of an election administration process and . . . a political process hovering around it. . . . It's a U.S. Senate seat, and they didn't spend $50 million without having a lot of emotion attached to it."

In Alaska, it remained unclear whether Ted Stevens (R), 84, a member of the Senate for 40 years, would become the first convicted felon elected to the chamber. Gail Fenumiai, director of the division of elections, said Stevens had a lead of fewer than 3,500 votes over Mark Begich, the Democratic mayor of Anchorage. Fenumiai said the state had at least 61,000 absentee and early ballots to count so it can verify that none of those voters went to the polls Tuesday. She estimated that the process would last until next week.

Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury said Sen. Gordon Smith (R) led by fewer than 5,000 votes over state House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D). But Bradbury said that margin was far smaller than the nearly 300,000 votes that remained to be tallied out of about 2.1 million cast. Bradbury said the outstanding votes, most of which arrived on the final day in Oregon's mail-in period, came largely from Portland and two other heavily Democratic areas, giving Merkley a more plausible path to victory.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) will probably face a runoff against Democrat Jim Martin, a former state legislator and state human resources commissioner. Yesterday, with 99 percent of precincts reporting and counting still to come for some early and overseas ballots, Chambliss led Martin 49.9 percent to 46.7 percent, said Matt Carrothers, a spokesman for Georgia's secretary of state. If neither candidate gets 50 percent, a runoff will be held Dec. 2.

Although that decision will come next week, Martin said, "The runoff race begins right now." Fisher, of the Republican Senate campaign committee, said: "At this point, boy, we are planning for a runoff, full steam ahead, if there is one. It's definitely going to be a huge target for both parties."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company