By Tim Reid and Kanishka Singh
PHOENIX (Reuters) -Democrats held onto control of the U.S. Senate while limiting projected losses in the House, handing a major victory to President Joe Biden and extinguishing hopes of the "red wave" that Republicans had expected leading into the midterm elections.
Democratic leaders described the outcome - sealed late Saturday with a win for the incumbent senator in Nevada - as both a vindication of their agenda and a rebuke of Republican candidates, many of whom had parroted former president Donald Trump's false claims about widespread election fraud.
"We were on the edge of autocracy and, thank God, the American people pulled us back in this election," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said at a news conference on Sunday.
The better-than-expected performance gave Biden, who struggled with low approval ratings ahead of Tuesday's elections amid persistently high inflation, a political lift ahead of what are expected to be intense talks on a range of geopolitical issues with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Monday in Indonesia.
Republicans, however, remained close to seizing control of the House of Representatives as officials continued counting ballots, with returns still flowing in for several races, including many in liberal-leaning California.
As of late on Saturday, Republicans had won 211 seats and the Democrats 205, with 218 needed for a majority. It could take several days before the outcome of enough House races is known to determine which party will control the 435-seat chamber.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 82, told ABC News and CNN that she would not make any announcements about whether she planned to remain in House leadership until after control of the chamber was decided. There had been speculation she would resign if Democrats lost the majority, especially after her husband was attacked by an intruder at their San Francisco home last month.
House Republicans, should they prevail, have pledged to try to roll back Biden-led legislation to battle climate change and want to make permanent a series of 2017 tax cuts set to expire. They also have vowed investigations into Biden administration activities and probes of the president's son, who has had business dealings with Ukraine and China.
Jim Banks, a Republican congressman from Indiana, said on Sunday that he expected his party to win a slim majority in the House and serve as "the last line of defense to block the Biden agenda," while launching investigations into the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the origin of COVID and pandemic lockdowns.
"That has to be a focal point of every single committee in the Congress, especially in the House under Republican control," Banks said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday".
FOCUSING ON GEORGIA
The Democrats will control the Senate, as they have for the past two years, with 50 of its 100 seats, by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote.
Their majority was clinched by Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, who narrowly defeated Republican Adam Laxalt.
"When the national pundits said I couldn't win, I knew Nevada would prove them wrong," Cortez Masto said in a victory speech on Sunday morning.
For the Senate, attention will now shift to Georgia, where Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker face off in a runoff on Dec. 6. If Warnock were to win, the Democrats' 51-49 majority would give them an additional edge in passing the few bills that are able to advance with a simple majority, instead of the 60 needed for most legislation.
Hovering over the 2022 midterm elections all year has been Trump, who used his continued popularity among hard-right conservatives to influence the candidates the Republican Party nominated for congressional, gubernatorial and local races.
With Republicans' lackluster performance - even if they win a narrow majority in the House - Trump has been blamed for boosting candidates who were unable to appeal to a broad enough electorate.
A Republican loss in Georgia could further dampen Trump's popularity as advisers say he considers announcing this week a third run for the presidency in 2024.
The outcome may increase the chances that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who routed his Democratic opponent on Tuesday, opts to challenge Trump for the 2024 presidential nomination.
Democrats had portrayed Republicans as extremist, pointing to the Supreme Court's decision to eliminate a nationwide right to abortion and the hundreds of Republican nominees who promoted Trump's baseless claims that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent.
Pelosi attributed her party's performance to Democratic candidates knowing their districts and maintaining focus on the issues voters cared about even as pundits in Washington predicted big losses and called for a change in approach.
"They knew the value of a woman's right to choose. They knew how important it was to protect our democracy. They knew the contrast between themselves and their opponents," Pelosi told ABC.
Continued control of the Senate means Democrats will still be able to approve Biden's nominees such as federal judges. That would include appointees to the Supreme Court should any vacancies open in the next two years on the bench with a 6-3 conservative majority.
(Reporting by Tim Reid in Phoenix and Kanishka Singh, Richard Cowan and Jason Lange and Joel Schectman in Washington; Writing by Kanishka Singh and Nathan Layne; Editing by William Mallard and Bill Berkrot)