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The House and Senate: Democrats advance in Congress as battles turn nasty

As the last returns trickled in yesterday, it became clear that the Democratic Party could celebrate capturing not just the presidency but also significant advances on Capitol Hill, assuring that for the next two years at least they have firm control of government at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

When all the results are counted, it is probable that the Democrats will be close to where they were when Bill Clinton came to power in 1993, with strong majorities in both the House of Representatives and the US Senate. The party stood to pick up at least 18 seats in the former and five in the latter.

Not that the party achieved all that it dreamed of. Notably, its always very ambitious goal of reaching 60 seats in the 100-member Senate, which would have been enough to insulate it from Republican filibustering, did not look likely to come to pass.

As Republicans are left questioning their viability as a national party, the Democrats must ponder the weight of responsibility upon them. Among the first orders of business when the Obama administration begins work after 20 January, will be attempting to pass a new financial stimulus Bill to seek recovery in a severely weakened economy.

They were meanwhile celebrating a handful of landmark wins, notably the defeat of Elizabeth Dole by their own Kay Hagan in North Carolina, after a race that had plumbed the depths of negativity, with Ms Dole describing Ms Hagan as "Godless" in an eleventh-hour TV spot. Similarly, Jean Shaheen ousted the incumbent Republican senator John Sununu after a bitter and expensive race in New Hampshire.

Less encouraging, however, were the returns in Minnesota, where a recount was planned after perhaps the most ferocious Senate battle of them all, between the incumbent Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger and former political satirist Al Franken, ended almost in a draw. A first count of the votes suggested that Mr Franken had fallen sort in his challenge by just 571 votes – a margin of loss so narrow that a recount was automatic.

More astonishing perhaps were events in Alaska, where the veteran Republican, Ted Stevens, appeared to be holding on to the slimmest of leads over his Democratic challenger, less than two weeks after being convicted of failing to reveal gifts given to him by supporters in the state.

So the Obama Revolution rolls forward. Best estimates suggest that when the last of the dust has settled, the Democrats will command 251 seats in the House and 56 seats in the Senate.