Democrats take firmer control of Senate

— -- Democrats significantly expanded their hold on the U.S. Senate Tuesday, putting them in stronger position to help deliver on President-elect Barack Obama's campaign promises.

They appeared to fall short, though, of the magic 60-vote majority needed to pass bills without Republican support.

Democrats picked up Republican-held seats in Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Colorado — and they were leading in Oregon and running even in Minnesota. The only Democratic incumbent thought to be in danger, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, escaped defeat.

And Democrats had hopes of unseating Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who was convicted of lying on his financial disclosure statements.

But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky fended off a tough challenge, as did Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

That meant that if everything broke the Democrats' way, the party would pick up eight seats, a tally that would bring them to 58 or 59 votes, depending on their relationship with Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who endorsed Republican John McCain for president.

Democrats, who won control of the Senate after the 2006 elections, held a pre-election 51-49 voting majority, including Lieberman.

Whatever the final number, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told USA TODAY that the Senate will become a different place.

"It's a lot easier to get two, three or four (Republicans) than it is to get nine. … I feel very good about it," Reid said as the returns started to come in. "We have the two Maine (Republican) senators who are moderates. … We're gonna be fine."

He called the outcome "a victory for the American people. It's about stopping the fighting and partisan battles."

Incumbents fall

With 35 seats up for grabs on a night that promised to reshape the U.S. Senate, Democrats rode a wave of voter discontent with the economy, the Iraq war and President Bush.

Republicans who once were considered solid bets for re-election found themselves in tougher-than-expected contests, and some lost.

In North Carolina, Democrat Kay Hagan upset Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

Democrat Jeanne Shaheen beat Republican Sen. John Sununu in New Hampshire.

In Virginia, former Democratic governor Mark Warner won easily over Republican Jim Gilmore in a race to replace retiring Republican Sen. John Warner.

In New Mexico, Democratic Rep. Tom Udall beat Republican Rep. Steve Pearce to succeed retiring Sen. Pete Domenici. Democratic Rep. Mark Udall — a cousin of Tom Udall and the son of the late Arizona Rep. Morris "Mo" Udall — defeated former Republican congressman Bob Schaffer for the Colorado seat now held by Republican Wayne Allard.

With Shaheen's election, women control a record 17 seats in the Senate.

Under Senate rules, 41 senators can block legislation by threatening a filibuster, and Republicans used that tactic a record number of times to stymie Democrats in the past two years.

The Senate held 110 votes to cut off debate and move to final passage of a bill in this Congress — nearly twice the previous record, 61, set in 2001-2002. Fifty of those votes failed.

Among the bills blocked: A bid to roll back tax breaks for the oil industry and a bill to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

Mark Warner's victory means Virginia has two Democratic senators for the first time since 1970. Sen. Jim Webb, who won his seat in 2006, told a packed ballroom at the state Democratic victory party Tuesday night that Warner and other Democratic victors will put the party in a position to pass legislation.

"We had 51-49 on a good day when Sen. Lieberman was not out campaigning for John McCain," he said to laughter. "We will now have a Senate that will get things done."

Tough year for GOP

It was always going to be a tough year for the GOP, if only because 23 of the 35 Senate seats up for election were held by Republicans.

That includes five retiring Republicans: Allard of Colorado, Warner of Virginia, Domenici in New Mexico, Larry Craig of Idaho and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

As the economy worsened and Obama began competing hard in traditionally Republican-dominated states, the climate for Senate Republican incumbents worsened and campaigning turned nasty.

•In Minnesota, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman found himself sparring bitterly in the final days with Democrat Al Franken, a comedian, over a last-minute lawsuit filed in Texas that alleged a Coleman donor had funneled $75,000 to the Republican through his wife's business.

•In New Hampshire, Shaheen criticized Sununu's vote for the $700 billion financial rescue plan. Shaheen will become the first woman to represent the Granite State in the U.S. Senate. The race was a rematch of their tight 2002 contest, which Sununu won with 51% of the vote.

Democrats also were counting on Alaska, where Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich was challenging Stevens, who was struggling to hold on to his seat despite his felony conviction.

Contributing: The Associated Press; Andrea Stone in McLean, Va.