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Could the Democrats lose Obama's Senate seat?

WASHINGTON — As questions linger about what Barack Obama's team knew about an alleged scheme to sell his vacant Senate seat, the talk dominating Democratic circles from Washington to Chicago to Springfield is focusing on more immediate and tangible concerns, all ending at the same place — is it now possible the Democrats could lose the seat?

The key questions:

-- How long will Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, hold onto his job?

Blagojevich went back to work Wednesday, a day after being arrested and charged with trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat as well as other alleged shakedowns and pay-to-play plots. Obama joined the chorus of people urging his fellow Democrat to resign and repeaeted that admonition on Thursday.

But Democratic insiders in Chicago fear that Blagojevich will hold onto his seat knowing that doing so is perhaps his best bargaining chip for a lighter prison sentence if he's found guilty. If he fears he's about to be tried and convicted, he could offer to resign as part of a plea bargain agreement.

-- If he does stay in office for weeks or months, will the Illinois General Assembly strip him of the power to appoint someone to fill the remaining two years of Obama’s term in the Senate?

Sentiment is strong in Springfield to do that. And the Senate’' Democratic leadership, which includes Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is signaling that it would refuse to seat anyone appointed by Blagojevich, which is within the Senate's powers.

But Blagojevich still has a few cards to play, chiefly using the calendar.

Even if the legislature passes the special election law next week, one insider said, Blagojevich still has to sign it into law or veto it. But he also could hold into it until the current legislature ends on Jan. 14, forcing the new legislature that takes office that day to start over.

Then, that session of the legislature would have to wait six days before sending the new election law to Blagojevich, and he could hold it for 60 days before vetoing it. The legislature would certainly vote to override the veto, but by then it would be mid-March. It would be some time later before the actual election could be held, all the while leaving the seat vacant as Congress debates and votes on critical parts of Obama’s agenda, likely including his proposals to help the economy.

-- And if the General Assembly orders a special election instead, is there now a chance that the people of Illinois will rise in anger against the Democratic Party and, gasp, elect a Republican to Obama's seat?

Until this week, it was a foregone conclusion that Obama's seat would remain in Democratic Party hands as fellow Democrat Blagojevich had the sole power to fill the vacancy.

And it's still possible a special election would send another Democrat to Washington. As one Illinois Democrat said Wednesday, the candidate would be running against Blagojevich. And Illinois could feel some considerable loyalty to Obama and his party, especially if he campaigned for the candidate.

But some Democrats in Washington aren't so sure. They fear that voters could rise up in anger and vote against any Democratic candidate — and help the Republicans take one they never thought they'd have a shot at.