By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It may have been the most unpopular House of Representatives in modern times, but that did not stop voters on Tuesday from leaving it firmly in Republican hands, according to projections.
While more than 18 incumbent House members from both parties were defeated, according to results available early on Wednesday, there was no obvious ideological or partisan pattern. Redrawn districts, as a result of the 2010 census, were responsible for some incumbent losses.
The results might disappoint those who had hoped for new and clear marching orders from voters on such issues as the deficit or immigration. Instead, they will get another divided Congress with deep divisions over pressing economic issues.
A contented House Speaker John Boehner told party faithful at an election-night rally that he and fellow Republicans had "offered solutions and the American people want solutions and tonight they responded by renewing our House Republican majority."
While Boehner said he would work with "any willing partner," he warned political opponents that he would continue battling Democratic moves to raise taxes on the rich.
"With this vote, the American people also made clear there's no mandate for raising tax rates," Boehner said.
The results could mean at least two more years of divided U.S. government as Democratic President Obama won re-election over Republican Mitt Romney and Democrats were projected to retain control of the Senate.
With the projected Republican win in the House, the partisan brand of politics the party practiced for the past two years appeared not to have seriously damaged its brand.
When the new House is sworn in next January, it will look much like the House that nearly brought about government shutdowns and a historic default on debt in 2011.
Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Republicans could now be situated to hold their majority in the House for quite some time. She spoke of a "structural advantage" the party holds "because of the way Republican voters are spread out over the country ... with strength in suburban and rural areas."
Binder added that unexpected "wave elections," such as the ones that swept Democrats into power in the House in 2006 and Republicans in 2010, while not the norm, could interrupt a party's long run in the majority.
The bitter partisanship in the 435-member chamber - a thorn in Obama's side - was thought to have contributed to record low public approval ratings of Congress that at one point dipped to 10 percent.
If voters did not like the overall tenor of Congress for the past two years, they seemed to remain satisfied with their individual members.
Election results were still coming in, but it appeared as if Boehner would preside over a House next year that is close to the 240 Republicans and 190 Democrats who now populate the chamber. Currently, there also are five vacancies.
With the outcome of several races still unknown, Republicans were holding at least 226 seats to the Democrats' 173.
But Republicans no longer will represent any northeastern U.S. congressional districts, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported. Republicans did, however, beef up their presence in southern states, the newspaper said.
FISCAL DEALMAKING AHEAD?
"The upshot is that the voters are saying to President Obama and Speaker Boehner: 'Go back to the bargaining table; finish the deal,'" said David Kendall, a senior fellow at Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington.
Kendall was referring to the intensive negotiations Obama and Boehner held during the summer of 2011, which ultimately fell apart but were aimed at bringing around $4 trillion in deficit reductions over 10 years.
Following that breakdown, many congressional leaders said that only the 2012 elections could settle the Democratic-Republican dispute over taxes and spending that stood in the way of an Obama-Boehner handshake.
On election night two years ago, the so-called Tea Party faction shook Washington's political establishment as conservative Republicans rode that small-government movement to a tidal wave victory.
Suddenly, skyrocketing federal debt, which Republicans said threatened to swamp the struggling economy and hamper job creation, dominated the national conversation.
It was in large part due to the Tea Party that Republicans wrested control of the House from then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats.
Two years later, voters displayed some fatigue with the Tea Party as some of the movement's stars were either defeated in their Senate bids or faced difficult re-election bids in the House.
Two of the highest-profile Tea Party activists in the House - Michelle Bachmann and Allen West - were struggling to keep their seats.
Freshman Representative Joe Walsh, a Tea Party favorite, lost his race against Democrat Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who lost both her legs in combat. The Illinois district is near Chicago, Obama's hometown.
Even so, Republicans were not expected to abandon the central tenets of Tea Party ideology, especially with other Tea Party activists, such as Steve King in Iowa, winning re-election.
"There will still be enough Republicans enamored by the Tea Party idea against raising taxes," said Youngstown State University political science professor Paul Sracic. "We're looking at a huge struggle in the lame-duck and next year," he said of the post-election session of Congress and the expected fights over tax policy in 2013.
STARS COME AND GO
Besides battling over taxes and spending, the Republican House and Democratic Senate likely will have an opportunity to clash over other large initiatives.
A senior Democratic aide said the Senate was likely to send the House an Obama jobs package that Republicans previously denounced. The aide said the Senate could also produce an immigration reform bill - if it could garner the "super-majority" necessary for all major bills - that would also present Republicans with problems.
When the new House convenes in January, it will do so without a couple of its most colorful politicians: Former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, the Democrat who early in his career gained fame as the "boy mayor" of Cleveland, was defeated in a primary race earlier this year. Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican who is sometimes referred to as the father of the Tea Party movement, has retired.
But there will still be plenty of interesting characters in the new House, including Democratic Representative Charles Rangel. The 82-year-old congressman from New York City survived ethics charges in 2010 and won a 22nd two-year term on Tuesday.
House Democrats will await former Pelosi's decision on whether she will stay on as Democratic leader now that she has again failed to engineer her party's takeover of the House.
The new House could have one other bit of star power: Republican Paul Ryan, who was Romney's vice presidential running mate and who has made the federal budget the focus of his 14 years in the House, was easily reelected by voters in his southern Wisconsin district.
(Additional reporting by Diane Bartz. Editing by Fred Barbash, Peter Cooney and Paul Simao)