Senate and House both shift to the right, sending a chill to liberals

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The Independent US

In the end it was as bad as the pessimists feared. Spurred by a Senate clean sweep in the South, the Republicans have strengthened their grip on the Senate and the House of Representatives, giving President George Bush a freer hand to push through his conservative legislative agenda in a second term.

In the end it was as bad as the pessimists feared. Spurred by a Senate clean sweep in the South, the Republicans have strengthened their grip on the Senate and the House of Representatives, giving President George Bush a freer hand to push through his conservative legislative agenda in a second term.

The most significant Republican breakthrough was in the Senate, as measured both by numbers and personalities. The Republicans gained at least three and perhaps four seats, giving them a minimum of 54, and a possible 55 of the 100 seats. Of the 34 seats at stake, Republicans won 18, including six gains, and the Democrats 15 (with two gains), with a seat in Alaska as yet undecided.

Of the gains, five came in the South, but the sweetest triumph was in South Dakota, where the state's former Republican congressman John Thune toppled Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader and the man the Bush White House had targeted as the "chief obstructionist" in the way of its plans on Capitol Hill.

The quietly spoken but fiercely determined Mr Daschle, first elected in 1986, became the first party leader in the Senate to be defeated in half a century. The setback is a huge psychological blow for the Democrats. and underscores the great secular reversal of roles that has taken place on Capitol Hill.

For much of the 20th century - from Roosevelt's New Deal through to the start of the Clinton era - the Congress was basically controlled by Democrats. There were a few brief interludes, particularly in the Senate, but a Republican president more often than not had to cope with Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.

But that changed with the 1994 revolution spearheaded by the former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Since then, Republicans have run both chambers with the exception of 2001-2002, when the moderate Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords crossed the floor to give the Democrats a one-vote edge.

Tuesday's outcome, however. means they will have been in the minority on Capitol Hill for a dozen years at least, until the next mid-term elections in 2006 - with little prospect of reversing the trend soon after.

There were some bright spots for the Democrats - most notably the expected landslide victory of Barack Obama in a Republican-held seat in Illinois, and Ken Salazar's win in Colorado, replacing the outgoing Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

And whatever happens, the Democrats will remain comfortably above the 41-vote "super minority'" needed to sustain a filibuster. They will be able to block what they consider particularly objectionable legislative measures or judicial nominations. At the time of writing, the Democrats still had a chance of winning a seat on the traditionally Republican terrain of Alaska. But even success in the far North would not make up for the disasters in the South.

Tuesday proved the tectonic shift in the states of the old Confederacy from Democrats to Republicans in presidential politics is now reflected in the Senate as well. Democratic losses in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia mean that those three states now have two Republican senators apiece.

In the person of David Vitter, the Republicans have their first senator in Louisiana since the post-Civil War reconstruction era. In Florida, the former Bush cabinet member Mel Martinez won the seat vacated by Bob Graham.

At the House level, where the majority party's powers are virtually untrammelled, the picture is bleaker still. The night began with Republicans enjoying a 227-206 seat edge, with two seats vacant.

When it ended, the powerful House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was predicting a net gain of at least three seats - not least thanks to some blatant gerrymandering that went on in his home state of Texas which netted the Republicans at least three districts previously held by Democrats.

"With a bigger majority, we can do even more exciting things," Mr Delay said.

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