By DAVID LIGHTMAN
WASHINGTON -- President-elect Barack 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.
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 also are 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 would 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."