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Democrats return to Washington emboldened by election wins

Updated 10:04 am ET Emboldened by their victories in Senate races from Massachusetts to Montana, and encouraged by their pickup of eight House seats, newly elected and returning Democratic members of Congress said Tuesday they won by focusing on protecting and expanding entitlements and by calling for higher taxes on upper-income people.

On Wednesday morning, Senate Democrats got additional reinforcement when newly elected Maine independent Angus King said he was joining their caucus, which will enlarge their majority in the new Congress to 55, a net gain of two.

Many House Democrats who voted for the Affordable Care Act lost their seats in 2010, but some of them – like Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire – were back Tuesday as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi welcomed new members at the Capitol.

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Shea-Porter's district was represented by Republicans for more than 20 years until 2006 when Shea-Porter won; it then rejected her in the 2010 GOP sweep, and re-elected her last Tuesday.

The biggest difference between the 2010 election in which she lost her seat and last week's election, Shea-Porter said, was that "there was no fear about the health-care law. I think that was the big thing that was driving the 2010 election and the Tea Party coming in. You remember how they talked about the death panels and how you'd lose your physician. I think that's over. I think people recognize that this is a consumer-friendly bill. It has to be fixed in small ways and as we go down the road, we will."

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Shea-Porter said her constituents "do want us to compromise but they're also asking us to protect the programs they rely on – to keep the social contract of Medicare and Social Security – and they want us to create jobs."

As for tax policy she said, "I heard loud and clear – and I think everybody did around the country – that we don't want to continue these tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And that we simply need to have some revenue. But the middle class can't take another whack – they just cannot."

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi holds a news conference to introduce 37 of the newly elected House Democratic Members at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

For the victorious Democrats, it wasn't just a matter of what their Republican opponents did wrong, but what they did right.

In Connecticut, Democratic Senator-elect Chris Murphy survived a tough race against Republican Linda McMahon, former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO, in which he faced negative stories about a late tax payment.

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"We just didn't let McMahon let the race be about personal attacks," Murphy said Tuesday as he entered a luncheon for new senators at the Capitol. "We knew that if we made the race about issues – even given her sort of sordid background – we'd win in Connecticut. There was a lot of pressure on us to make the race about the WWE but we knew in the end that if the race was about our positions on health care and Social Security, and women's health care and taxes, that we'd win."

Murphy, who was first elected to the House in the Democratic sweep of 2006, said, "I think we did a good job of staying disciplined and avoiding the temptation to make the race about personalities. Linda McMahon wanted a race about personalities; we wanted a race about issues. And that's what the race became about in the last 30 days."

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Murphy said Connecticut voters "sent me here to compromise. I think they sent me here to get a deal done and I understand whose shoes I'm filling – Sen. (Joe) Lieberman cut a unique path here, but Connecticut voters generally liked the fact that he was one of the people that had the courage to reach out across the aisle."

It was a rare and gracious bit of praise for Lieberman from one of his former fellow Democrats.

In the scrimmaging over taxes, Murphy said he opposed House Speaker John Boehner's sole focus on eliminating deductions and tax preferences as the way to raise more revenue. "Focusing on deductions only is a mistake, because ultimately if you remove the biggest and most costly deductions, you're taking money out of the pockets of middle-class residents of my state," he said.

According to the Tax Foundation, Murphy's state has the third heaviest state and local tax burden of any state, so the deductibility of state and local taxes is especially vital to Connecticut voters. 

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"We've got to have everything on the table but we can't let the Republicans lead us down a path that essentially gets tax reform at the expense of middle-class families in Connecticut," Murphy said.

Like Murphy, Steven Horsford, a new Democratic House member from Nevada, said Tuesday that he supported President Barack Obama's call to raise income tax rates on couples earning more than $250,000 a year.

 As for tax incentives, Horsford said he wants to end tax incentives for firms to locate jobs outside the United States and supports "providing those incentives for reshoring those jobs back here in America."

Republicans hunt for election lessons as wounds heal

The man who led the Democrats' effort to regain the House majority, Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the meaning of his party's net gain of up to eight seats in the House meant that "the Tea Party starts to roll back and problem solving can move forward."

Even though he says he views last Tuesday's outcome as a defeat for the right, he also claimed that his new members "wake up every single morning not thinking about left or thinking about right" but about "how to move this country forward."

Pelosi added that she wanted to avoid spending cuts and across-the-board tax increases at the end of the year.

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On tax policy, she said, "If we have growth, we can produce revenues. We make decisions about revenue and we make decisions about cuts to the extent they promote growth."

She said she's inclined to support the Obama idea of tax increases on couples making more than $250,000. But until she and other congressional leaders meet with Obama on Friday at the White House, she said, "I don't know what his current proposal will be. We will hopefully find that out on Friday when we go to the White House."