Does a status quo election mean more stalemate?

CBS

The numbers will be parsed. Fingers will be pointed. The pundits will talk. (And talk. And talk.) But while there will be plenty of debate over the meaning this year's election. One thing is clear: On the surface, the next two years will look much like the last two.

President Obama won a second term, the Democrats maintained control of the Senate and the Republicans kept their majority in the House. It's the same divided government that's been in place for the last two years.

After a productive first two years in which the Obama administration and Democrats passed health care reform, financial reform and a host of other pieces of legislation, voters kicked Democrats out of power in the House and reduced their majority in the Senate. What happened next was a whole lot of political gridlock and not a whole lot of action.

Mr. Obama and Congressional leaders are well aware of the challenge they face. The president acknowledged the gridlock in his victory speech Tuesday, calling efforts to build consensus "painstaking." He promised to seek political collaboration in his second term.

"I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together," Mr. Obama said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also offered an outstretched hand, suggesting he and his Republican colleagues "put politics aside and work together to find solutions."

GOP House Speaker John Boehner, meanwhile, called the election a "mandate for both parties to find common ground."

But these are familiar promises -- the same ones made by countless politicians who went on to find little common ground with the opposition. Boehner went on to say that "the American people have also made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates." Mr. Obama made raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans a central plank of his campaign.

Already setting up a major point of contention, Reid had a different take. He said Wednesday that "the election was pretty clear" in providing a mandate for "the richest of the rich" to pay more in taxes. Exit polls show that 60 percent of voters want the wealthy to pay more in taxes.

Republicans have yet to indicate they are likely to give in so easily. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who will have a smaller caucus after loosing Republican seats after Tuesday's election, called on the president to "move to the political center."

"Now it's time for the President to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a closely-divided Senate, step up to the plate on the challenges of the moment, and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office," McConnell said.

As his campaign wound down, Mr. Obama told supporters that while he wants to reach across the aisle, he won't give in on core Democratic priorities. "That's not bipartisanship, and it's certainly not change,'' he said. ''That is surrender to the same status quo that has squeezed the middle class families for way too long."

Jim Manley, former top aide to Reid as well as Sen. Ted Kennedy, said the president is "going to have to bring everyone together, but he's also going to have to take a more aggressive role fashioning the product and selling it to the country." While Manley placed part of the onus on the president, he said Republican Congressional leaders must look beyond the most conservative elements of their party.

A few of the most conservative candidates in the GOP lost on Tuesday, including Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. But other staunchly conservative senators were elected, including Ted Cruz in Texas, and many remain in the chamber.

In the House, after the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 which catapulted dozens its members into office, many of them lost Tuesday. New York Republicans Nan Hayworth and Ann Marie Buerkle and Illinois' Bobby Schilling and Joe Walsh are a few. Allen West, an outspoken social and fiscal conservative, joins with a handful of other Tea Party incumbents locked in a race too close to call as of Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, moderates have become hard to find on Capitol Hill. The group of fiscally and socially conservative Democrats known as "Blue Dogs" has been even further decimated with losses by North Carolina's Larry Kissell, Kentucky's Ben Chandler and Iowa's Leonard Boswell. Like some Tea Party incumbents, a handful of Blue Dogs are in races where the outcome is not yet clear. But with a more liberal crop of Democrats in the House, the Blue Dogs will be in the minority with little say in legislation and agenda.

The next few days and weeks are going to be crucial for setting the stage for the next two years. Congress and Mr. Obama face the "fiscal cliff," a combination of tax increases and budget cuts that economists have warned could send the economy into recession. While Mr. Obama doesn't have to worry about reelection again and perhaps can govern with fewer political constraints, most of the 435 members of the House and 100 senators don't have that luxury.

  • Leigh Ann Caldwell On Twitter»

    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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