Obviously right now the main focus should be offering sympathy and support to the Byrd family, but at the same time he was a life long politician and would have wanted to discuss the political consequences.
The first issue is the fact that Byrd’s death reduces the Democrats to 56 seats plus the 2 independents gives them 58. That is not enough to overcome any filibusters (a Byrd favorite) of pending bills, such as the financial reform act. They would need to get 2 GOP votes and so far I don’t know that they have any.
Of course the Governor of West Virginia can appoint a replacement senator but that could take a few days depending on whether he chooses to name a seat warmer or someone to run in the next election (which is another issue to discuss).
It could be though that the Democrats might want things to stay as they are for a while. They had talked about passing the reform bill by July 4th but from what I’ve seen in the news they may not have all of the votes they need. The vacancy would provide a tactful way for them to delay the vote until after the recess.
The other issue that has been popping up in the news is the issue of whether or not there will be a special election to fill out the seat and if so when. Under West Virginia law, if there is less than 30 months left in a term when a vacancy occurs there is no special election but if more than 30 months remain there will be.
The 30 month clock would have clicked on July 3rd, but since Byrd died today that means there should be a special election.
However the law also says that the election should occur with the next primary, and at this point the next primary is in 2012 because this year they voted in May. The seat is up in 2012 anyway.
So there is something of a conflict in the law.
I’m not sure it really matters as the Democrats would likely win an election in either 2010 or 2012 but it is something to keep the political junkies entertained.