Lame Duck Senate Worries

[ Posted Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010 – 17:03 UTC ]

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 which 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.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


-- Chris Weigant


13 Comments on “Lame Duck Senate Worries”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    It is just getting harder and harder to stay optimistic about the future of this country. I had hoped that something good might happen in this final session but now I will just have to keep my fingers crossed that things don't get worse. President Obama and Congress have been a huge disappointment and I thought that they might be forced to fulfill some of their campaign promises in order to stay in power but now it appears that it does not matter who has the majority.


  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Snap out of it, Stan!

    I mean that sincerely, I'm not trying to be facetious, here ...

  3. [3] 
    Chris1962 wrote:

    Don't give up hope, fstanley. There's still campaign finance reform to look forward to. Oh, wait...

    ...The Senate is holding off on voting for a much-heralded campaign finance crackdown until Democratic officials finish raising money in New York City...

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Now, THAT was funny!

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    The fear of out of control Democrats doing real damage with a Lame Duck session is not as "overblown" as ya'all might think.

    Let's face facts. Democrats rarely have had trouble swing over a GOP'er or two to their agenda, the recent Defense Appropriations notwithstanding. (That was Reid's own fault)

    The problem Democrats have had was getting their OWN members to toe the line.

    Now, postulate a scenario where many Democrats in the Senate will lose their jobs come January and control of the Senate will go over to the GOP.

    It's entirely likely that those Democrats will not feel any pressure to represent their constituents. It's also likely that there will be very real and intense pressure to further the DP agenda before the balance of power shifts.

    The BEST case scenario is that these fired Democrats won't feel any obligation to anyone but the Democratic Party and it's agenda and will vote accordingly.

    The WORST case scenario is that these fired Democrats will be vindictive and actually search out ways to screw over their constituents and their country, as "payback".

    Ergo, an out of control Senate during the Lame Duck session is not just a GOP Boogieman, but rather a very real possibility.


  6. [6] 
    Kevin wrote:


    I know I've banged this drum before, but the first part of this Bill in Portland Maine column should be read by all voting Americans. His pieces are usually humor columns, but this is serious and he NAILS it.

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Sorry Kevin,

    I have to call BS...

    Democrats have been in power in Congress since 2006..

    This country is MUCH worse off now than it was then..

    And the blame for this can be utterly and completely laid at the feet of the Democratic Party...

    Not Bush, not the GOP, not Aunt Matilda and not the gods....

    The Democrats have enjoyed an all but complete LOCK on all facets of the American system of government and they have completely screwed the pooch...

    Are Republicans the end all get all of leadership?? Of course not..

    But it is undeniable that Democrats simply cannot be trusted to provide competent leadership.

    Republicans are not perfect... But, by and large, they are infinitely better than the alternative.


  8. [8] 
    Kevin wrote:

    Sorry Michale, but BS back atcha. Let's not bother re-hashing all the things we disagree about, just agree we'll never be in each other's camp...:D

  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:


    Why is my position BS??

    Republicans have no problem pushing thru their alleged "agenda", even in the face of Democratic Party opposition...

    Yet, the Democratic Party, with a near lock on every aspect of the government can't seem to accomplish squat...

    If the Democratic Party's agenda is what is best for this country, then Democrats should have the testicular fortitude to push the "country's best interest" thru....

    If they don't have that fortitude, then it's either one of two possibilities...

    #1, they don't really believe that it's in the best interests of the country.


    #2, they simply are too incompetent to make it happen.

    Either way, this makes the Democratic Party unsuitable in the leadership department...

    If there is a flaw in my logic, I sure wish someone would point it out....


  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:

    On another note...

    As many of you know, I have been PiNG'ed (it's an industry term... :D) from many of the Lefty blogs around here, most notably OINK's, Cesca's and Jamie's... But I still have some posting privileges on a few of the intellectually enlightened blogs (mainly CW.COM :D) including a site that I have a lot of fun at, Suburban Guerrilla... You can find this site on the Banter Links..

    Anywho, I just wanted to make a special call-out to Susie over at SG.. She read the riot act to the one and only David Axelrod that got notable mention...

    I have to say, her analogy was really something.. :D

    "We're (Progressives) the girl you'll take under the bleachers but you won't be seen with in the light of day,"
    -Susie Madrak

    Now, ya'all know that I would probably be the LAST person on the planet to carry the torch for Progressives. And, in the interests of full disclosure, Susie and I have crossed our swords on more than one occasion..

    But, to quote the honorable Larry The Cable Guy....

    "That right thar was funny as hell, I don't care who you are!!" :D


  11. [11] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    In a rush, didn't have time to read the full article, but just had to say, yeah, that was pretty funny. Heh.


  12. [12] 
    Kevin wrote:

    I'm depressed. When I make a somber plea for Weigantians to read a link I think is important; the only member of our community who seems to believe me that it was worthwhile is Michale. Thanks for the feedback, Michale, although it was predictable in advance that you would dissent to the piece. I'm mildly surprised CB hasn't chimed in, but I suspect she's busy with other matters (Hopefully nothing bad..) as her posts seem to have lessened recently.
    I was kinda hoping for some indication that ANYONE else had read and had thoughts about that article; so far no joy. :(
    Anyhow, thanks again, Michale, at least I feel that someone takes me semi-seriously.

  13. [13] 
    Michale wrote:


    You really need to join me for a beer summit!!! :D

    As an aside, did ya'all know that Budweiser has a BBQ Sauce!!!!??? :D

    I shit you not!!!

    Anyways, don't get too down.. We may be on the opposite side politically speaking, but we are both earthlings and we're both Weigantians.

    Strong bonds of friendship has certainly originated with less!! :D

    But rest assured... Even if I disagree vigorously with what you say, I always take you seriously..

    Unless, of course, you plot with Pinky and The Brain to take over the world... :D David was right.. Ya'all Canadians are a shifty lot... :D


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