WASHINGTON – Their grip on Congress strengthened, Republicans on Wednesday saw both a mandate and an opportunity to push further tax cuts, limits on damage awards in lawsuits and industry-friendly energy legislation.

Republicans on Tuesday gained four seats in the Senate, giving them a more conservative tilt and a 55-45 edge over Democrats and a Democratic-leaning independent. Even more powerful symbolically, Republicans also defeated Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, ending the career of the most powerful Democrat in Congress.

In the House of Representatives, Republicans won at least two more seats, moving the party into their second decade of control there. Entering the election, Republicans held a 227-205 majority in the 435-member body, with one independent who votes Democratic and two vacancies.

“I think there’s green lights in America. We’re going to move forward, because I think America has given us the thought to continue doing what you’re doing,” said Rep. Tom Reynolds, the New York Republican who ran the House Republican election operation.

Similarly, Sen. George Allen of Virginia, the head of the Senate Republican re-election committee, said: “You are going to see a reinvigorated, stronger, strengthened Republican majority that is going to get down to work with the president to move this country forward.”

The new cast should produce little change in the House, where the Republican majority has solidly supported President Bush’s agenda. But in the Senate, Republicans believe they will be able to overcome Democrats, who spent much of Bush’s first term blocking the president’s initiatives and his judicial nominees.

Republican activists believe Senate Republicans now have the votes to get the 60-vote margin needed under Senate rules to pass legislation to limit lawsuits and repeal the estate tax.

They also believe that by defeating Daschle, Republicans sent tremors through Democratic ranks, particularly among those in Republican-leaning states, such as Daschle’s South Dakota.

“Daschle was the guy who said, “Look at me, I represent a Republican state and I vote like (Massachusetts Sen.) Ted Kennedy. You can do that, too,” said conservative operative Grover Norquist. “By losing, he’s now the poster child for “you can’t get away with that forever.”‘

Five of six new Senate Republicans are current or former members of the House, where legislation tends to move more swiftly, debate is more confrontational and procedures are tightly controlled. They are likely to be impatient with the more deliberative Senate.

“The Senate was the temperate body,” said Marshall Wittmann, a former aide to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and now a fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “It is now likely that the Senate will be more hospitable to the White House agenda.”

That would be a significant change from the past four years, when centrist Democrats and Republicans regularly moderated House legislation, to the frequent chagrin of the White House. Still, some predicted that Democrats will not take kindly to having White House proposals rammed down their throats.

“If they do that, the Democrats will not roll over,” predicted congressional scholar Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “They can bollix up the works for the Republicans plenty. I don’t see a pretty governing environment.”

The most explosive test could come if and when Bush makes his first nomination to the Supreme Court. He didn’t have that opportunity in his first term, but with Chief Justice William Rehnquist ailing from thyroid cancer, the opportunity could come soon.

Democrats blocked several of Bush’s nominees to lower federal courts, prompting talk that, if presented with a Supreme Court nominee, the Republicans could resort to a so-called “nuclear option.” In that they would assert that any procedural effort to block a nominee would be unconstitutional and they would change ancient Senate rules to permit a nominee’s confirmation by a simple majority vote. There’s little appetite for such a maneuver among Senate Republicans now, but some analysts say a fight over a Supreme Court vacancy could trigger it.

Democrats from safe Democratic states already had warnings for Republicans:

“If the Republicans and President Bush regard this as a ringing referendum, endorsement of all their policies, I think they’re going to have a really difficult four years,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who easily won re-election Tuesday. “If, on the other hand, they use the victory that they achieved to reach out and build what the president had talked about in 2000 … of ending the partisanship and ending that kind of tone, they can have a successful four years.”

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