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USA Today: Pelosi puts economy as lawmakers' top priority

By John Fritze

Congressional Democrats vowed Wednesday to use their expanded majorities to consider legislation on stem cell research and health insurance for children, but they said bolstering the economy would be the first priority.

As election officials continued to count votes in undecided races across the country -- including four Senate seats held by Republicans in Alaska, Georgia, Oregon and Minnesota -- Democratic leaders called on Congress to return to Washington this year to pass another economic stimulus bill.

'The economy is the top item on the agenda as we go forward,' said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who added health care, education and the Iraq war as other priorities. 'There will be no time wasted in getting started.'

A day after voters widened Democratic majorities by at least 19 seats in the House and five in the Senate, Pelosi said Congress should pass a $61 billion stimulus bill that would increase infrastructure funding and extend unemployment insurance. President Bush signed a $168 billion stimulus bill in February that sent tax rebates to most individuals, and provided tax breaks to some businesses.

Party leaders acknowledged that much of their agenda may be set by President-elect Obama, but they do have some unfinished business. Bush, for example, twice vetoed congressional efforts to increase funding for the children's health insurance program.

Democrats also sought to lower expectations, suggesting it would take time to advance their policies. Shortfalls in the federal budget, compounded by the economic downturn, will require lawmakers to make difficult choices, Pelosi said.

'When you dig yourselves a hole as deep as we have under the Bush administration policies, it takes a little bit of time to dig yourself back out of that hole,' said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is chairman of the Democratic Party's House fundraising arm.

Many Democrats ran on the promise of ending gridlock in Washington and several won in Republican-leaning districts. That will require Democrats to strike a balance between advancing their proposals and not alienating Republicans, said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University.

'If the Democrats push hard on health care reform, social-cultural issues, they're going to miss a unique opportunity to come out during the honeymoon period and really make a very big difference,' Rozell said.

Republican leaders remained largely quiet Wednesday, although some rank-and-file lawmakers began jockeying for leadership positions.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, who helped lead the effort against the $700billion bailout bill this year, said he may run for a leadership post.

Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he intended to retain his position as the party's ranking member. 'I'm deeply disappointed by the outcome of Tuesday's election,' Boehner said in a letter to colleagues. 'It's time for the losing to stop. And my commitment to you is that it will.'

Even as they began crafting an agenda and reshuffling their leadership lineups, Democrats and Republicans were monitoring the outcome of races that were too close to call.

Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and his Democratic challenger, Al Franken, were headed toward an automatic recount, and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss in Georgia appeared headed for a December runoff with Democrat Jim Martin. Republican Sens. Ted Stevens of Alaska and Gordon Smith of Oregon were in races too close to call.

Coleman thanked voters for re-electing him Wednesday, but Franken did not concede the election and said in a statement that, 'We won't know for a little while who won this race.'

In the House of Representatives, Democrat Frank Kratovil led Republican Andy Harris in Maryland's 1st district by a slim margin, and state election officials said the race will not be decided until later this week.

Similar uncertainty continued to play out in six House races, including those in California, Virginia and Ohio.