Senator Joseph I. Lieberman is not sure which direction he is going in the Senate leadership.

WASHINGTON — As election returns in Oregon gave Democrats a sixth new seat in the Senate, Democratic leaders on Thursday began to confront some of the crucial personnel questions that would shape the next Congress, including the fate of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut after his ardent backing of Senator John McCain for president.

In the House, lawmakers continued their scramble for leadership positions, including an opening created by the appointment of Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois, as the new White House chief of staff.

At the same time, the Republican whip, Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, announced that he was stepping down, apparently sparing the party a fight over its No. 2 post. Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia is expected to be chosen for that job.

But the most immediate question was the fate of Mr. Lieberman, an independent who proved crucial over the last two years in the party’s 51-to-49 edge.

That majority existed only because he and another independent, Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, caucused with the Democrats. But Democrats were in the minority on issues related to national security and the war in Iraq because Mr. Lieberman in those cases voted with Republicans.

With the Democrats now guaranteed to hold at least 56 seats without Mr. Lieberman, he could be stripped of his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, a move that could prompt him to join the Republicans.

The majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, met with Mr. Lieberman for a half-hour Thursday and issued a terse statement saying no decisions had been made. Aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Reid had suggested that Mr. Lieberman relinquish his chairmanship in exchange for a less prominent position.

At a brief news conference after the meeting, Mr. Lieberman promised to support President-elect Barack Obama, but he did not disclose his plans and did not take questions.


Many Democrats say Mr. Lieberman had crossed a line not only by endorsing Mr. McCain, his longtime friend, but also serving as one of his closest advisers and by sharply questioning Mr. Obama’s qualifications to be president. Some Senate Democrats and aides say it is unthinkable to let Mr. Lieberman head a committee that will conduct oversight of the Obama administration.

Mr. Reid restated the dismay felt by many Democrats. “While I understand that Senator Lieberman has voted with Democrats a majority of the time, his comments and actions have raised serious concerns among many in our caucus,” he said.

Mr. Lieberman, at his brief news conference, said he was considering his options, but he did not specify what those options were or indicate when he would make a decision.

“The election is over,” he said. “And I completely agree with President-elect Obama that we must now unite to get our economy going again and to keep the American people safe. That is exactly what I intend to do with my colleagues here in the Senate in support of our new president, and those are the standards I will use in considering the options that I have before me.”

Complicating the shuffle in committee assignments is the impending departure of Mr. Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, and Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., the senior senator from Delaware.

Both will be replaced by Democrats, but their departures, particularly that of Mr. Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, create numerous openings.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who is next in line for the Foreign Relations Committee post, said on Thursday that he would forgo that job in favor of retaining his chairmanship of the banking committee.

Mr. Dodd, at a news conference, said that the economy would be the most pressing issue of the next Congress and that he planned to oversee a revamping of the financial regulatory structure.

The Democratic leadership is also considering who will take the lead on the issue of national health care policy given the precarious state of Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, chairman of the health committee, who has brain cancer.

And Democrats are contemplating a delicate effort to replace Senator Robert C. Byrd Jr. of West Virginia, who turns 91 this month, as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Mr. Byrd is the senior Senate Democrat, but some colleagues worry that he is no longer up to running the most powerful committee at a time of severe economic uncertainty.

The sixth new Democratic senator is Jeff Merkley, the speaker of the Oregon House, who defeated Senator Gordon H. Smith, a two-term Republican. Unofficial returns gave Mr. Smith, who conceded on Thursday, 45.7 percent to Mr. Merkley’s 48.8 percent.

Officials continued to count votes in Alaska, where the Republican incumbent, Senator Ted Stevens, held a narrow lead over the Democrat, Mayor Mark Begich of Anchorage. And in Georgia, the candidates were gearing up for a Dec. 2 runoff after Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Republican, appeared to fall short of the 50 percent required for victory. Mr. Chambliss had 49.8 percent while his Democratic challenger, Jim Martin, had 46.8 percent. In Minnesota, a recount was under way after the Republican incumbent, Senator Norm Coleman, finished ahead of the Democrat, Al Franken, by fewer than 400 votes.

Some Democratic senators said they could envision situations in which Mr. Lieberman retained his chairmanship. But the addition of at least six new Democrats makes it difficult for Mr. Reid to counter the arguments of caucus members who say Mr. Lieberman must be punished for his zealous efforts on behalf of Mr. McCain.

The decision will be made by the 19-member Democratic steering committee, which proposes chairmanships and committee assignments for ratification by the entire Democratic caucus. Mr. Reid said Mr. Lieberman would meet with the caucus in the next two weeks.

Mr. Emanuel’s decision to join the White House staff opens up the chairmanship of the House Democratic Caucus, the No. 4 position. Representative John B. Larson of Connecticut, the vice chairman, has announced his interest. Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who led the campaign effort for House Democrats, will also probably be a candidate.

In the Republican ranks, Mr. Blunt of Missouri, the No. 2 party leader, said he would step down, keeping a promise he had made to leave if the Republicans did not win back the House in 2008.

“I’m going to see what it is like to be a member of Congress,” said Mr. Blunt, who has been in leadership roles since 1999.

The two parties will hold House leadership elections the week of Nov. 17. At the moment, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, is not being challenged for the top slot despite double-digit losses by Republicans for a second consecutive election.

Representative Mike Pence of Indiana is running for the vacant No. 3 post of conference chairman and has Mr. Boehner’s backing.