Democratic efforts to secure a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate stalled Wednesday as several seats remained hotly contested and the prospects of a recount and a runoff election loomed.
Democrats expanded their Senate control to at least 56 seats. They knocked off Republican Sens. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and John Sununu of New Hampshire while losing none of their own, but appeared to be falling short of the 60 seats they need to overcome Republican-led filibusters that could stymie their initiatives.
The most dramatic race was in Minnesota, where Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, faces an automatic recount in his battle with Democratic challenger Al Franken. Coleman led Franken, who rose to fame as a performer and writer on Saturday Night Live, by 477 votes out of more than 2.46-million cast. Coleman declared victory Wednesday, but recounts are required in races with a winning margin of less than one-half of 1 percent.
Stevens hangs on
Another twist was unfolding in Alaska, where embattled Sen. Ted Stevens was clinging to a lead over Democratic challenger Mark Begich. Stevens, who has served in the Senate for 40 years, was convicted last week of felony corruption charges. If Stevens wins, he is likely to face an effort by his Senate colleagues to expel him.
There was a glimmer of hope for Democrats in Georgia. While Republican incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss held a solid lead Wednesday over his opponent, Jim Martin, he did not appear to have gotten the 50 percent share of the vote necessary in that state to win. A runoff election was likely on Dec. 2.
In Oregon, GOP incumbent Gordon Smith battled Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley. The Portland Oregonian predicted that Merkley would prevail. The Oregon race at least promised the prospect of resolution, something that may not occur in Minnesota, Alaska and Georgia for some time.
Before Election Day, Democrats had hoped to take as many as 10 Senate seats away from Republicans. Two independents, Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, largely vote with the Democrats.
The election also opens up much-coveted vacancies for Obama's Senate seat and that of the vice president-elect, Joe. Biden. Both seats are safe in Democratic hands.
By law, the decisions about who will fill the seats are to be made by the governors of Obama's and Biden's home states, Rod Blagojevich of Illinois and Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware, both Democrats. Blagojevich said he had been besieged by requests. He would not give any hints as to who is on his short list, but several names are being bandied about in Chicago, including Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr.
Minner, through a spokeswoman, also indicated that she had not picked a replacement.
Democrats were already contemplating changes.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is planning to challenge Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a major battleground for climate-change legislation. Dingell, an auto industry ally, and Waxman have feuded over tougher regulation of vehicle emissions.
"Some of the most important challenges we face — energy, climate change and health care — are under the jurisdiction of the commerce committee," Waxman said Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., plans to meet with Lieberman, I-Conn., this week to discuss his future. Returned to the Senate two years ago as an independent after losing the Democratic primary, Lieberman caucuses with the Democrats and has helped them hold a slim majority, but some in the party have called for him to be stripped of his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee because of his strong support — including a speech at the Republican National Convention — of GOP presidential candidate John McCain.
House Democrats — who now hold 235 of the House's 435 seats — picked up at least 19 seats, including an Alabama district that overwhelmingly voted for President Bush four years ago.
"Last night was a great night," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday. "The American people spoke out loudly and clearly that they wanted a new direction for America. And they voted in large numbers for change."
But at least four Democratic incumbents were ousted, including first-term Rep. Tim Mahoney of Florida, who was caught up in an adultery scandal.