Split Congress presents familiar challenge for Obama
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If he is to break the deadlock in Washington, US President Barack Obama will need a fresh start with a largely unchanged Congress, where Republicans held on to their House majority but failed to capture the Senate.
Upon securing a second term at the White House late on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama said the “best was yet to come” for the United States.
But after a closely-fought presidential contest that exposed deep ideological divides, US citizens awoke Wednesday to the prospect of more gridlock in Washington, with both leading parties retaining control of one of the two chambers of Congress.
While the Republican hold on the House of Representatives was never really in doubt, the Grand Old Party (GOP) was hoping to overturn the Democrats’ slender lead in the Senate, where a third of the seats were up for grabs on November 6.
Instead, Obama’s went on to boost its majority in the upper house, wresting hotly contested seats in Massachusetts and Indiana from Republican control and holding on to all but one of the seats it already had.
In Massachusetts, veteran liberal Elizabeth Warren beat Republican incumbent Scott Brown, a moderate, thereby recovering the seat that for decades had belonged to the Senate’s late “Liberal Lion”, Ted Kennedy.
Other Republican defeats were in part self-inflicted.
In Indiana, where Tea Party champion Richard Mourdock ousted moderate veteran Richard Lugar during Republican primaries last year, Democrat Joe Donnelly successfully wooed centrist voters to capture what had previously been considered a safe seat for the GOP.
Another Tea Party favourite, Todd Akin, squandered a golden opportunity in Missouri with ill-thought remarks on rape and abortion, which were largely credited with helping Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill hold on to her seat (and hurting Republican prospects across the country).
As a result, Democrats controlled 55 of the Senate’s 100 seats, counting two independents aligned with Obama’s party.
Republicans did however flip one Democratic seat, in Nebraska, with conservative candidate Deb Fischer, who was backed by former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Her victory, coupled with those of the Tea Party’s Ted Cruz in Texas and of Warren in Massachusetts, pointed to a more polarized Senate, with several moderates in both camps either ousted or retired.
More brinkmanship expected in the House
The House of Representatives looked no less polarized after Tuesday’s election, with voters mostly returning the same members who had left the country on the brink of a historic default on debt in 2010.
Some two dozen incumbents, belonging to both parties, lost their seats in the 435-member chamber, bringing little change to the partisan make-up of the House, which remains under Republican control.
Tuesday’s vote did however reflect a growing geographical divide, with the liberal North East voting out its last Republican representatives and the conservative South adding some more.
With election results still coming in, House Speaker John Boehner could count on some 235 GOP members to the Democrats’ 193.
The Tea Party, which engineered the Republican takeover of the House in 2010, was likely to remain influential in the chamber, though prominent member Allen West lost his seat and short-lived presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann barely rescued hers.
In one of the most high-profile races, Illinois Representative Joe Walsh, a Tea Party favourite, was defeated by Democrat Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who lost both her legs in combat.
Still, Boehner was confident enough to claim voters had “made clear there’s no mandate to raise taxes” on the wealthy, setting the stage for a new round of wrangling with the president.
In his victory speech before supporters in Chicago, Obama said he would talk to his rival for the presidency, Mitt Romney, about "where we can work together to move this country forward".
Improving his fractious relationship with the House Speaker may prove more crucial to breaking the gridlock in Washington.
An Obama jobs package already approved by the Senate is set to give House Republicans a first test of their willingness to work with the president during his second term at the White House.
That will soon be followed by crucial talks aimed at heading off potential economic disaster at the end of the year, when simultaneous tax increases and spending cuts threaten to plunge the country back into a recession.