The upcoming midterm elections are likely to change the party numbers in both houses of Congress, but this may happen faster than most people now realize in the Senate. Because while most incoming members of the new Congress will get sworn in on the traditional timeline (i.e., next January), there are a handful of Senate races whose victors will be sworn in immediately after the election. This could alter the balance of power between the parties for the "lame duck" session -- the period between the election and next January. Which could have consequences for any legislation being put off until then (such as just happened with the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal, and the DREAM Act).
The reason a few senators will be sworn in early is that the races are "special" elections, held to replace vacancies that are now being filled by temporary, appointed senators. In other words, while most Senate elections are happening on their usual six-year cycle, these races are not in synch with this cycle, due to unexpected vacancies.
The first two of these elections are in Illinois and Delaware, who both lost a senator to the White House after the 2008 election. Barack Obama's old seat and Joe Biden's old seat are up for special election this year. Both are currently held by seat-warmers who essentially promised not to run for election in 2010. Senator Roland Burris was appointed in the midst of the Rod Blagojevich scandal in Illinois, and Senator Ted Kaufman was Joe Biden's former aide. Both subsequently announced they would not seek election in their states' 2010 special elections. The third seat up for a special election is in Colorado, due to Senator Ken Salazar becoming Secretary of the Interior in Obama's cabinet. There's a fourth possibility as well, as West Virginia will be holding a special election for the remainder of Senator Robert Byrd's term (who died in office).
Because all of these are races to replace a senator in the middle of their six-year term, whoever wins the race will immediately become senator, while all the rest of the new incoming senators will have to wait until the 112th Congress convenes early next year. [Note: It was not completely clear from the special election law West Virginia had to pass specifically for the 2010 Senate election whether their newly-elected senator will immediately assume his duties, but that's the way it reads to me (the law's text does not specify either way, but ends with: "Upon the election and qualification of a United States Senator by the United States Senate following the November 2, 2010 election, the provisions of this section will expire," which at least suggests that this will be the case).]
Democrats now hold an effective 59-41 edge over Republicans in the Senate (it's technically 57-2-41, but the two Independent senators caucus with the Democrats). This means that currently, when Democrats successfully hold together, they only need to peel off one Republican vote to beat Republican filibuster attempts (usually one of the ladies from Maine). But if they lose one or more of the special election races, this could change overnight. Worst-case scenario, Democrats will spend November and December with only a 55-45 majority. Best-case scenario is that Democrats hold onto their 59-41 lead (all of the special election seats were in Democratic hands, so no pickup is possible for Democrats).
Taking a look at the races, it seems that Delaware is pretty safe for Democrats, due to the nomination of Tea Party favorite Christine O'Donnell by the Republicans. But the other three are nowhere near as safe. In fact, all three are currently seen by the pollsters as "tossups" -- meaning they could go either way. In the Illinois race, Republican Mark Kirk has been polling pretty much even with Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, although Kirk has been up three points in the last few polls. The story in Colorado is similar, where Republican Ken Buck and incumbent (but appointed) Democratic Senator Michael Bennet are neck-and-neck, with Buck being up in the last few polls by four to five points. A contentious three-way race for Colorado governor may complicate this race, but it remains to be seen in what way, or to what degree. West Virginia's Senate race was once seen as fairly safe for Democrats, but new polls have put it in contention. West Virginia's Unions (mineworkers, mostly) are very strong, and have voted in Democrats consistently for quite some time now, but this may be changing. Democratic Joe Manchin, a popular ex-governor, was expected to win this race handily. New polling suggests he may be in trouble, or at the very least, is going to have a much harder election than was previously thought.
All of this doesn't budge the numbers much. We're still looking at a best case scenario of remaining at 59-41, and, in the worst case, 56-44. But make no mistake about it -- every seat lost will make it a lot harder to get anything through the Senate before the end of the year.
Republicans have been actively horrifying their voters with the supposed dangers of the lame-duck session this year. They've been making dark intimations that all sorts of things are going to pass in this period, and that the gentlemanly thing for the Democrats to do would be not to even hold any lame duck session at all. This is patent nonsense, of course. Republicans gleefully use lame-duck sessions all the time to pass big slices of their own agenda, without batting an eye. So it's not like Democrats invented the tactic or anything.
But Republican fears (as usual) are wildly overblown. Because even in the best case, Democrats will basically have the balance of power they now enjoy -- which hasn't done them a whole lot of good in the past few months to move their agenda. There's no reason to think (except possibly on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," after the Pentagon issues their report in late November) that any particular item on the Democratic agenda is going to suddenly have any more support after the election than now. In other words, unless Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe suddenly switches party registration (which is just not going to happen), Democrats won't be any more able to move bills through the Senate after the election than they are now.
But if the Democrats don't sweep these four (or possibly just three, if I've read the West Virginia law wrongly) special elections in November, then things are definitely going to get harder for Democrats in the Senate. These special elections could wind up, at least for the rest of this year, being the most important midterm elections in the entire country.
It behooves Democrats -- starting with Harry Reid -- to think long and hard about this when deciding what they want to get done before they all take October off to go campaign. Because "we'll deal with that after the election" is looking like a riskier and riskier tactic for them to be using on any important legislation they currently face.
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