WASHINGTON — The nation's next president couldn't have asked for a more useful housewarming gift.
On the heels of Sen. Barack Obama's historic election Tuesday night, Democrats padded their margins in both chambers of Congress, making inroads into Republican-held seats in the South, North and West and giving the new president room to press his agenda next year.
As of early today, Democrats had picked up five Republican seats in the Senate and appeared en route to taking as many as 20 Republican seats in the House of Representatives, including two in Central Florida.
In Connecticut, Democrat Jim Himes beat Rep. Chris Shays, one of Congress' most influential moderates and the last House Republican from New England.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was virtually guaranteed of building her advantage to 250 out of 435 seats.
"Tonight, the American people have spoken clearly to take our country in a new direction," she said, promising "bipartisanship, civility and fiscal responsibility."
The real impact of Tuesday's tidal wave was in the Senate, where since 2006 the Democrats have held a narrow majority, 51 seats to 49, thanks only to the support of two independents — one of them Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who backed Arizona Sen. John McCain in the presidential race.
The Democrats' slim margin has meant gridlock for the past two years, with Republicans able to block virtually any legislation they didn't like.
If Tuesday's trend holds and Democrats finish the night with 57 or 58 seats, as many analysts expected, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will need to recruit only a couple of moderate Republicans to secure the filibuster-proof majority needed to move votes on contentious issues regarding judicial nominations, energy, taxes and foreign affairs.
Although after Tuesday, the number of moderate Republicans had dwindled.
"It is big," U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said as he celebrated with fellow Democrats in Orlando. "There's always a couple of reasonable Republicans, like Olympia Snowe (of Maine) that won't just be an obstructionist. It means a lot to bring things to the floor so you can consider it."
Coupled with Obama's victory, the Democratic wins in Congress mean "that the country is tired of the excessive partisanship and ideological rigidity, and it's time for bipartisan consensus to solve our problems," he said.
The only Senate seats the Democrats lost for sure were those held by Obama, in Illinois, and his running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden. Both were in mid-term, and the Democratic governors of those states are certain to appoint Democrats to replace them.
In North Carolina, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the wife of the former Senate majority leader, was handily defeated by Kay Hagan, a state legislator and a niece of former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles.
In New Hampshire, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen beat Republican Sen. John Sununu.
In Virginia, former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, crushed former Gov. Jim Gilmore to take the seat that had been held for 30 years by Republican John Warner.
A pair of Democratic cousins and congressmen, Reps. Mark Udall and Tom Udall, won formerly Republican seats in Colorado and New Mexico, respectively.
Former comedian Al Franken was tied with Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in Minnesota, and Democrats were locked in tight races for Republican-held Senate seats in Georgia and Oregon.
The Democratic victories in the House and Senate built on earlier gains they made in 2006 and, as in that year, don't necessarily signal a drastic shift to the left.
In the Southern and Western states, the winning Democrats ran largely as moderates. Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes the Senate as editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said it remains to be seen how they'll serve as senators.
"When it comes to federal issues, their ideologies are not well molded," Duffy said. "So we're going to have to see. I think Franken is pretty predictable. The Udalls are predictable. Warner we know. … Anyone else in this class, I think it's a work in progress."