WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats on Wednesday began planning their return to power as the chamber’s majority, capping their party’s strong showing in the 2006 election by claiming victories in closely contested races in Montana and Virginia.
The wins, following the Democrats’ takeover of the House in Tuesday’s midterm vote, would give the party a 51-49 Senate majority, counting two independents who are expected to vote with Democrats.
Republicans were not ready to officially give up as of late Wednesday. GOP Sens. George Allen of Virginia and Conrad Burns in Montana had not conceded defeat as election officials in those two states worked to complete the final accounting of votes.
But the leads held by their Democratic challengers were large enough to prompt news organizations and election experts to declare the prospects of Burns and Allen retaining their seats all but nonexistent. Their defeats would mean the GOP lost six Senate seats Tuesday.
Republican leadership aides privately acknowledged that their Senate majority was gone, but they declined to say it on the record in deference to Burns and Allen.
Control of both congressional chambers would give Democrats a powerful platform to advance their agenda. And for the first time during Bush’s presidency, the party could make the legislative branch a meaningful counterweight to the White House.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada is poised to join presumed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) at the forefront of a newly energized national Democratic Party when the new Congress convenes in January.
“The American people have spoken clearly and decisively in favor of Democrats leading this country in a new direction,” Reid said Wednesday night.
Also expected to assume prominent roles are several of the party’s liberal stalwarts in the Senate. These include Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who as the likely chairman of the Armed Services Committee would be positioned to forcefully challenge the administration’s Iraq policy, and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who as the anticipated head of the Judiciary Committee would be positioned to tangle with the White House over the controversial prosecution of suspected terrorists and over appointments to the federal judicial bench.
The GOP had grabbed control of the Senate and the House with its landslide win in the 1994 midterm election. Republicans have held the House since then; Democrats regained a Senate majority for about 18 months during Bush’s first term, but lost it in the 2002 election.
For much of Wednesday, it remained unclear who had won the Senate.
But by midday, virtually complete results in Montana showed Democrat Jon Tester ahead of Burns by about 3,000 votes — a margin that, under state law, would not require a recount. Political analysts in the state said the gap appeared too large for Burns to overcome as final tallies filtered in.
In Virginia, the Associated Press concluded Wednesday night that Democrat Jim Webb was the winner in the state’s Senate race, a victory that would give the party a majority.
The wire service made its call after contacting election officials in all of Virginia’s 134 voting localities. Webb, a former secretary of the Navy, had a lead of more than 7,000 votes when election officials began reviewing their initial tallies Wednesday.
Webb and Tester declared victory Wednesday. Their apparent wins completed a strong showing by Democrats that seemed unlikely even to many of the party’s leaders. Although most were confident they would take the House, fewer believed the Senate was within reach.
Reid was quick to characterize the results as a mandate for sweeping change.
“The days of the do-nothing Congress are over,” he said. “From changing course in Iraq to raising the minimum wage to fixing the healthcare crisis to making this country energy-independent, we’re ready to get to work.”
With control of the House and Senate, Democrats will have significantly more leverage over President Bush in the last two years of his administration.
Democratic-run Senate committees, like their counterparts in the House, will probably conduct more-aggressive oversight of the administration, especially of its handling of the war.
The party also is certain to revive a number of long-stalled Democratic initiatives, such as raising the national minimum wage — a proposal thwarted by the GOP-controlled Congress shortly before the election.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California was among several Democrats who on Wednesday announced ambitious plans for initiatives on the environment, budgeting and other policies.
Priorities are also certain to shift under new committee heads such as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is expected to chair the Environment and Public Works Committee.
“I am already planning for vigorous oversight and legislation to make sure that the U.S. Senate is once again an environmental leader in protecting the health of our families and our children and addressing pressing concerns like global warming,” Boxer said Wednesday.
Boxer would represent a seismic shift from the current chairman, Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, one of the environmental movement’s most reviled opponents.
Others expected to play central roles in the new Senate are Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, likely head of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the presumed chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. Biden for months has been pushing his plan to partition Iraq along ethnic and religious lines.
Democrats are expected to push to strengthen federal hate-crime laws, repeal tax breaks for the oil and gas industries, increase funding for development of alternative fuels, and rewrite the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
A Democratic Senate majority — no matter how narrow — would give the party far more power to block votes on Bush’s generally conservative nominations to the federal bench, a key issue for political activists on both sides of the aisle.
But just as Democrats were able to use the Senate’s arcane rules to block GOP initiatives when they were in the minority, they will now have to contend with a GOP minority able to play the same procedural games.
Because the Senate is designed to give voice to minority viewpoints, it often takes 60 votes to overcome hurdles and enact controversial legislation.
Senate Democrats are scheduled to caucus next week in Washington to discuss plans for next year.
Wednesday had begun with the prospect of a months-long electoral standoff in Virginia.
Representatives of the Allen campaign announced they would be carefully monitoring the final tallying, raising the specter of a prolonged battle reminiscent of the contest for Florida’s electoral votes during the 2000 presidential election.
A phalanx of lawyers and party officials descended on county offices and courthouses across Virginia as control of the Senate appeared to hinge on the final vote-counting in the nation’s last seriously contested Senate contest.
There was even talk of a recount, which could drag the final results into December.
But when the Associated Press declared Webb the winner in the state, Senate Democrats and their supporters began to celebrate.
Times staff writers Janet Hook and Moises Mendoza and researcher Robin Cochran contributed to this report.