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Eleven U.S. House Races Yet to Be Determined

November 13, 2006 at 2:41 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Now, a lame-duck Congress returns to Washington while the new Congress is still taking shape. We begin with NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: It’s called a lame-duck session because the newly elected Congress won’t be sworn in until January, while the outgoing Congress still has work to do. In fact, several members who returned to town this week know their next several days in Congress will be their last.

Those who will return in January include members of a dispirited Republican Party, which lost its majority last Tuesday, and revitalized Democrats, who’ll have the upper hand in the new Congress.

On top of the political realities, both sides have pressing items on their to-do lists before they adjourn for the year. They include: completing work on nine spending bills; extending several tax breaks that have expired; and approving trade pacts with Vietnam and Peru.

Traditionally, lame-duck sessions don’t produce any new legislation, and the next few weeks may be no different. At a minimum, however, Congress may have to pass a temporary funding measure to keep the government running if members fail to reach agreement on the various spending bills.

As the Senate got back to work today, the current majority leader, Bill Frist, who is retiring, and the soon-to-be majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid, both said voters made it clear last week that partisanship must end.

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), Senate Majority Leader: America wants results, and America wants solutions. And it’s with that focus that we enter the remaining days of the 109th Congress.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Minority Leader: We need to work together to pass legislation on a bipartisan basis and send it to the White House.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, freshmen House members began their orientation sessions today, and they’ll help choose party leaders in elections later this week.

For Democrats, current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is expected to be elected the first female speaker. The choice for her deputy, House majority leader, is between current Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Pennsylvania’s John Murtha, whose call for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq made him a favorite among party liberals. Pelosi endorsed Murtha yesterday, but Hoyer maintained that the majority of the caucus supported him.

On the Republican side, three men are battling to be the next House minority leader: current Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, who some may want to blame for the party’s losses, and conservatives Mike Pence of Indiana and Joe Barton of Texas. The eventual Republican leader will cope with a party that lost at least 28 seats. And one week after Election Day, 11 races remain undecided.

Many reasons for undecided races

RAY SUAREZ: And for more on those undecided House races, we go to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: They're still counting and recounting ballots in nine House races, and two more are headed toward runoffs. For a closer look at the still-undecided contests and which way they're leaning, we're joined by Amy Walter, senior editor of the Cook Political Report.

And welcome back, Amy.

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Thanks, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: First of all, what's the partisan breakdown of these seats that are still up in the air?

AMY WALTER: Well, almost all of those seats that are still up in the air are held by Republicans. One is held by a Democrat; that's John Barrow down in Georgia. The rest are pretty evenly spread across the country. We have a couple in Ohio; we have one in Connecticut; we have another one in Florida. But, as I said, most held by Republicans.

MARGARET WARNER: And is there any common denominator in why these particular races aren't decided? I mean, are they uncounted ballots? Are there challenges, irregularities?

AMY WALTER: There's a little bit of everything. Like this election has proven, that's a little bit of everything in everywhere.

But here's what we know. In a place like Florida, for example, there was a discrepancy about how many uncounted votes there were, undervotes, that is. What Democrats contend is that there were too many voters that dropped off; that is, they voted for folks on the other end of the ticket but didn't come all the way down and vote for the congressional race. Unclear why that is, they're going and looking into this. It's a very narrow majority.

MARGARET WARNER: And that's the race that was for Katherine Harris' seat.

AMY WALTER: This was for Katherine Harris' seat, which will now go to something of a recount. In a place like Washington State, where there are a tremendous number of mail-in ballots, people who are permanent absentee voters, in King County also helps to really slow the system down, because they have to count the ballots, plus count the ones that came in on Election Day, and there's also been flooding in Washington State. I think that's also slowed down the process.

How the races are leaning

MARGARET WARNER: In most of these, the incumbent is still leading, is that right?

AMY WALTER: Yes. I don't suspect that we're going to see much change between the numbers that we have now, in terms of who we think will win or lose, and what's going to happen at the end of this process.

Now, there has been certainly in some of these races a tightening of the margin of the incumbent over the challenger. For example, we saw in Connecticut most recently Rob Simmons facing a very strong challenge from Democrat Joe Courtney. Courtney was ahead by something like 167 votes, found out that there was actually human error in transposing the numbers. Now that lead for Courtney is only 67 votes.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, two of these races are in Ohio, where the Democrats did very well for Senate and in state races. Tell us about those two. And why are they still undecided?

AMY WALTER: Well, one of those races in the Cincinnati area, Jeanne Schmidt, who got most attention during her first floor speech in which she criticized Congressman Murtha, who as we know is a former Marine, saying Marines don't cut and run. And she was criticized very heavily, even parodied on "Saturday Night Live," for that speech.

This is a really Republican district. And the fact that a Democrat is even close says much more about Congresswoman Schmidt than it does about the leanings of this district. There we still have some outstanding votes that need to be calculated, but it does look like Schmidt probably holds on.

The other seat is in Columbus. This was supposed to be the bellwether race. And, in fact, if you told me a year ago that Democrats were going to capture the majority and Congresswoman Debbie Pryce was going to hold onto her seat, I would have thought you were crazy.

This is a trending district. It used to be more Republican, now trending more Democratic. This was a fight between Mary Jo Kilroy, who was the Democrat, city councilwoman. Pryce, she's been in leadership. She's been in Congress for some time. She was behind in many of the polls, not by much, but behind, came back. Now she's ahead by a certain number of votes, but that number keeps changing, and there are still many votes yet to count.

Actually, the Ohio State-Michigan game getting somewhat in the way of the counting. So we will have to wait and see for a little while what the final number ends up being, but Pryce does look like she has the advantage.

The breakdown of the new Congress

MARGARET WARNER: And then one of these races is so contentious that both candidates have shown up or are showing up at orientation?

AMY WALTER: In Florida 13, is that the one you're referring to?


AMY WALTER: Yes. So in Florida, you have Vern Buchanan. This is the open seat, Katherine Harris' seat. Vern Buchanan the Republican, Christine Jennings the Democrat. There are just a couple hundred votes that separate the two.

Now, this is not unique. There have been many cases -- in fact, it may happen in just about every Congress, where there's one race that's too close to call. It hasn't been called by the time orientation begins. Both candidates show up; both want to participate in their respective party orientation.

And then, at some point, one person ultimately has to go home. We just don't know when that's going to be, but this is not -- believe it or not, it's really not that unique.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, if you take in the runoffs, too, at what point will we know for sure what the party breakdown of this new Congress will be?

AMY WALTER: Well, here's what we're going to wait for. There are two runoffs. One is in Louisiana. Bill Jefferson, obviously a great deal of national attention this year down in New Orleans. The FBI reportedly found about $90,000 in his freezer.

Now, he has not been indicted; they are still investigating this case. But he is in a runoff with another Democrat in December. So regardless of what happens there, Democrats hold that seat.

The one that could change the final number is in Texas. Henry Bonilla, a Republican, he was given a better district, a safer seat under the mid-decade redistricting plan that was orchestrated by Tom DeLay. The Supreme Court threw that district out. He now has to run under a new district, which is much more Hispanic, much less Republican.

And he's in a runoff with former Congressman Ciro Rodriguez. The date hasn't been set. It will be in December. But it will just make a difference one seat one way or the other; it's obviously not going to make a difference in who controls the House.

MARGARET WARNER: No. Amy Walter, Cook Political Report, thanks again.

AMY WALTER: Thanks a lot.