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Retirements Underscore Vulnerability of 60-Seat Majority

Senate Democrats got a stark reminder this week that their current filibuster-crushing, 60-vote majority is likely to end at the beginning of the 112th Congress.

Of course, Democrats already knew that 2010 was going to be a tough election year, but Tuesday’s retirement announcements by veteran Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Byron Dorgan (N.D.) still felt like another blow to a party feeling battered by sagging approval ratings and a bruising fight for health care reform.

“Retirements always bring into focus the stark difficulties of an election year,— said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “But I don’t think the retirements themselves affect the psyche of the caucus. The real question is how does this affect the Obama [administration] agenda?—

The aide added, “We have 60 votes right now and this once again reminds us that we may not always have 60.—

Indeed, Dorgan’s retirement, in particular, put one more Democratic-held set in peril. Of the 17 Democratic seats the party will have to defend this year, nine are likely to be very competitive and some Democrats in relatively safe seats are facing well-funded challenges from the right.

Republicans are unlikely to win the 11 seats they would need to take back control of the chamber. But even a four- or five-seat pick-up would radically alter the dynamic of the Senate, where Democrats currently hold 60 seats and have largely been forced to pursue a party-line strategy for overcoming Republican filibusters.

The Senate Democratic aide noted that 2009 had been “particularly punishing— as Democrats struggled among themselves to come to a consensus on health care reform and to put a brave face on their attempts to stem the tide of joblessness around the country.

Another aide posited that while there is a sense of “relief that last year is over … there’s some trepidation as to what could happen this year.—

This aide added, “I think Democrats would like to see a more proactive White House that uses the president’s ability to sell what we’ve done and what we’re going to do.—

But because the Senate was able to pass a health care bill before Christmas, the mood of the party is not completely bleak, Democrats said.

“Had we not been able to pull off health care and then [the retirements] happened, that would be a different story,— a third senior Senate Democratic aide noted. “Right now, Democrats are down but not out. The general mood is it’s going to be a tough year.—

Indeed, the 2010 Democratic agenda is largely a blank slate after the party completes health care and an expected job-creation package. Democrats said the party will likely struggle with whether to try to take advantage of its 60-vote majority now by passing ambitious bills to reform immigration laws and implement climate change policies. However, many Democrats are likely to argue against trying to stuff more controversial votes onto the backs of vulnerable Senators, particularly when the party as a whole saw few rewards last year in polls tracking approval ratings.

Despite the uncertainties they face, Senate Democrats said they do not necessarily to expect an avalanche of retirements from endangered incumbents, and that the departures of Dodd and Dorgan could end up being a wash electorally. While Dorgan’s retirement likely makes his seat a GOP pick-up opportunity, Dodd’s decision gives Democrats a fighting chance to retain it, considering the Connecticut Senator’s consistently poor polling numbers portended a lost opportunity to keep the seat.

Other vulnerable Senate Democrats who have been floated as potential retirees reaffirmed their commitment to run in 2010 on Wednesday.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — who is up in 2010 and may now be the chamber’s most vulnerable incumbent — reaffirmed the leader’s intentions. “He is absolutely running,— said Jon Summers. Reid has racked up an impressive campaign war chest, with nearly $9 million cash on hand at the end of 2009, and his GOP opponent will not emerge from a crowded primary field until this summer.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) also appears committed.

“Just yesterday the Senator announced an expanded campaign team and the establishment of a campaign headquarters. The Lincoln campaign will have avery ambitious ground campaign. We’ll compete for every vote. The Senator is very optimistic and we’re moving forward,— said Katie Laning Niebaum, Lincoln’s campaign spokeswoman.

But defending at least four open seats in Connecticut, Delaware, North Dakota and Illinois as well as vulnerable members like Reid, Lincoln, party-switcher Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), and two virtually unknown appointees — Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — will be no easy task for Democrats as they seek to hold onto a commanding Senate majority next year. Republicans are defending four open seats in New Hampshire, Missouri, Ohio and Florida, giving Democrats a few opportunities to stem their likely losses.

Jessica Brady contributed to this report.

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