Ore. Win Puts Democrats At 57 Senate Seats

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Two days after the election, Jeff Merkley, the speaker of Oregon's state House, defeated incumbent U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, a moderate Republican. The victory gives the Democrats 57 seats in the Senate, still short of the filibuster-proof 60 seats.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Two days after the election, more victories for Barack Obama and the Democrats. NPR and other news organizations have called North Carolina for Obama. He defeated John McCain by about 13,000 votes there. Missouri remains too close to call. And another Republican senator has fallen. In Oregon, Gordon Smith has been defeated by Democrat Jeff Merkley, the state's speaker of the House. Merkley celebrated today in Portland.

Senator-elect JEFF MERKLEY (Democrat, Oregon): The victory in this seat puts 57 seats in a working majority that can work with Barack Obama to put this nation back on track.

SIEGEL: The Democrats have picked up six seats and lost none. And here to help us analyze the new Senate is NPR's David Welna. Hi, David.

DAVID WELNA: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: In the Senate, three races involving Republican incumbents remain undecided there. We're looking at runoffs and recounts. Catch us up on where the Senate races stand.

WELNA: The still undecided races, Robert, are in Minnesota, Alaska and Georgia. And in all three cases, they involve Republican incumbents. In Minnesota, Senator Norm Coleman finished ahead of Democratic challenger Al Franken by fewer than 500 votes from a total of nearly three million votes cast. And that difference is far smaller than the half percentage point that triggers an automatic recount in Minnesota. And Franken is showing no signs of conceding to Coleman, so that recount should start a couple of weeks from now and likely not conclude before December.

In Alaska, Senator Ted Stevens leads his Democratic challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, by about 3,300 votes. That despite the fact that Stevens was found guilty last month on seven felony counts of taking unreported gifts. But that race is still in limbo because close to 20 percent of the ballots have yet to be counted, most of them early and absentee ballots. Finally, in Georgia it appears that Senator Saxby Chambliss has fallen just shy of the 50 percent plus one that he needed to avoid a December 2nd runoff against Democrat Jim Martin who finished three percentage points behind Chambliss.

SIEGEL: Now, when we heard Jeff Merkley speak of 57 seats in a working majority, he was counting as Democrats both Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who's an independent, and independent Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, had a meeting with him today. Senator Lieberman, of course, backed John McCain. What did Lieberman say about that?

WELNA: Well, Robert, Lieberman of course angered a lot of Senate Democrats with his very high-profile campaigning for John McCain. And some of them have been demanding that he be stripped of his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee now that they no longer need him to achieve a majority in the Senate. And Lieberman made a very brief statement this afternoon after his meeting with Majority Leader Reid, an encounter that he described as a good conversation between two colleagues and friends. Here's a bit of that statement.

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent Democrat, Connecticut): I want to spend some time in the next few days thinking about what Senator Reid and I discussed and what my options are at this point. And he promised me that he would do the same. And we will continue these conversations.

WELNA: And soon after that, Majority Leader Reid issued a statement saying no decisions have been made about Lieberman, but he added that Lieberman's comments and actions have raised serious concerns among Senate Democrats. And he said that he and Lieberman will be speaking to those Democrats in two weeks to discuss further steps.

SIEGEL: David, does the Democrats' interest in achieving 60 votes, supposedly the filibuster-proof majority, do you think that strengthens Lieberman's hand or weakens it in bargaining with Senator Reid?

WELNA: Well, the fact that they're going to fall probably a couple seats short of that 60 already weakens his hand, but there's also the fact that having 60 votes is no guarantee that you're going to have party unity on every vote for cutting off filibusters. So I don't think that that's an essential consideration anymore.

SIEGEL: This is the Senate, after all, we're talking about. Very independent-minded legislators.

WELNA: Yes. And herding cats is often the expression used for trying to get these people to think on the same page.

SIEGEL: Now, no Democratic senators lost their seats on Tuesday. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana was the one who had the toughest race, and she was re-elected. But there will be two who are leaving the Senate, Joe Biden and Barack Obama. What happens to their seats?

WELNA: Well, both those seats will be filled by the Democratic governors of Illinois and Delaware. It's not clear who Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich will choose to replace Obama. But because the president-elect was the only African-American in the Senate, Blagojevich is expected to choose a black person to be his successor there. And among the names being mentioned are Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., Congressman Danny Davis, and Illinois State Senate Leader Emil Jones, Jr.

As for Biden's successor, it's long been assumed that his son, Bo, who's Delaware's attorney general, was being groomed to take over that seat. But Bo Biden's been deployed to Iraq as an Army National Guard reservist until late next year. So outgoing Delaware Governor Ruth Ann Minner could appoint a caretaker successor until a special election is held two years from now, or that decision might be made by Delaware's Governor-elect Jack Markell, who's sworn in the same day that Joe Biden takes his oath of office as vice president.

SIEGEL: And just briefly, on the other side of the Hill, in the House, the Democrats expanded their majority. Do we know yet by how many seats?

WELNA: Well, the Democrats have a net pickup so far of 19 seats, expanding their majority to 254. And another half-dozen House races are still up in the air. So that majority could grow even bigger.

SIEGEL: NPR's David Welna on Capitol Hill. Thank you very much.

WELNA: You're quite welcome, Robert.

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