WASHINGTON — President-elect Obama's Washington will be a friendly but probably not overwhelmingly supportive place, since his coattails pulled only about 20 new Democrats into in the House of Representatives and five into the Senate.
Obama's ability to work with the 111th Congress, which convenes in January, is likely to be complicated by two factors: Republicans are expected to be a more conservative and combative bloc, and many of the new Democrats are from conservative states and districts with histories of electing GOP members.
"There is not a majority of liberals in the House or the Senate," said Gary Jacobson, a congressional expert at the University of California, San Diego. "He's going to have to listen to the Blue Dog Democrats."
Blue Dogs are approximately 60 moderate-to-conservative House Democrats whose chief priority is reining in spending, a stance that could clash with Obama's promises to spend billions on education, energy and health-care programs, as well as new tax cuts.
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Democrats won 254 House seats, a net gain of 18, with eight still undecided. Republicans won 173 seats. In the Senate, Democrats claimed 54 seats to the GOP's 40, with the outcomes of races in Georgia, Minnesota, Alaska and Oregon still uncertain. Independents Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut caucus with Democrats in the current Congress.
The Democratic gains are less than most new presidents got in modern elections that have reshuffled the existing political order. Ronald Reagan in 1980 came into office with net gains of 33 Republican House and 12 Senate seats. Franklin Roosevelt's Democrats picked up 97 House and 12 Senate seats in 1932. (When the last Democratic president won power — Bill Clinton in 1992 — Democrats picked up only one Senate seat and lost nine House seats. He was bucking a conservative era.)
"If (Obama) had piled up 50 or 60 (House) seats, akin to what happened in 1964, you'd have the numbers where you could do bold things. But the numbers are not there," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center.
Obama also will find that the remaining Republicans in both houses of Congress want to reposition their party as the staunchly conservative opposition.
Gone are veteran House moderates such as Connecticut's Christopher Shays, the last New England Republican in the House, Maryland's Wayne Gilchrest, New Mexico's Heather Wilson and Virginia's Tom Davis.
Conservative House Republicans signaled Wednesday that they want changes quickly. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., quit his leadership post, and Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., a staunch conservative, was expected to seek the No. 2 post, now held by Missouri's Roy Blunt.
The Senate GOP leadership is expected to remain intact, but conservatives there are also suggesting that more party discipline is needed.
"Republicans in the Senate suffered major losses last night because they failed to stand up for conservative principles over the last two years," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. "We need more conservative leaders who will do everything in their power to stop President-elect Obama and the Democrats in Congress from taking away our freedom with socialist policies."
House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, who said Wednesday that he'd seek to retain his post, sounded a more conciliatory tone. "We have not yet convinced the American people that Republicans have returned to our roots as the party of reform. We haven't yet earned their trust," he told other Republicans in a letter. "But we will."
Obama is likely to face two big early tests, one on economics, the other on Iraq policy.
He's expected to fashion a broad economic recovery package that includes his plan of tax breaks for working families, college students and small businesses, while reinstating the pre-2001 top tax brackets of 36 and 39.6 percent for individuals who earn more than $200,000 a year and families making more than $250,000.
Analysts think that Obama has a shot at winning an economic program next year because he'll have a Democratic wind at his back. Quick approval would show that the party is willing to act fast on the day's most pressing issue. That desire to act will, at least for awhile, overwhelm fiscally conservative Democrats' desire to trim the deficit, said Maya MacGuineas, the president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
"Democrats will feel like auctioneers, just watching the price tags grow and grow," she predicted.
When Obama turns to other priorities, however, notably energy and health care, he could find growing resistance. While an economic relief package can be sold as a stimulus to combat the weak economy, health care changes cannot. As a result, "it will be very tough to get anything that will cost a lot of money on a permanent basis," Jacobson said.
Obama's other big challenge is to change Iraq policy. On paper, conditions for a new direction look promising, since U.S. casualties are down and polls have found that voters overwhelmingly oppose the war. But changing Iraq policy has always proven to be a tough vote for many lawmakers, particularly in culturally conservative areas, such as those where many Democrats won on Tuesday.
However, Obama may well find "converging scenarios," in which military officials' views could be similar to his, giving troop withdrawals the imprimatur of bipartisanship, said Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at Washington's Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center.
Obama's biggest hurdle could be the specter of 2010 politics. Fundraising for the next election begins almost immediately, meaning that members will cast votes with an eye on how they'll play back home.
As a result, said Ornstein, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "has got to be sensitive to the needs and demographics of those swing districts." That means not pushing Democrats from conservative areas into votes their constituents won't like.
"It could be hard for her to get her own party in line," he said. "I didn't see any shift in the direction the Blue Dogs want to take."
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