DEMOCRATS are on tenterhooks. Reports are circulating on Capitol Hill that Sen. Richard Shelby (D) of Alabama, who has sometimes clashed with the Clinton White House, may soon become a Republican.
A switch could be critical. President Clinton's forces hold only a tenuous 56-44 Senate majority, with difficult November elections just ahead. A Shelby defection could tip the balance.
Although Democrats currently hold a 12-vote margin in the Senate, political scientist Norman Ornstein says it's now ``close to a sure thing'' that ``Democrats will lose seats'' this year. Dr. Ornstein sees Republican gains ranging from two to six senators, with a ``slim'' chance the GOP could even ``capture a majority.''
That's where Senator Shelby comes in. The recurring rumors, repeated again this week in the Capitol Hill newspaper, ``Roll Call,'' say that Shelby will put on a Republican hat if doing so would give the GOP control of the Senate.
Should Republicans suddenly take charge, experts are already assessing the risks to Clinton and his agenda.
At an election conference sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, resident fellow William Schneider concluded that the 1994 midterm elections could produce ``very serious trouble'' in Clinton's second term.
Even with the current Democratic majorities in the Senate and House, there are already cracks in the party's ranks that threaten health-care reform and the presidential budget. In the Senate, at least four Democrats (including Shelby) oppose the White House on a regular basis in crucial showdowns, Schneider says.
Together with the 44 Republican senators, ``that means you've got 48 anti-Clinton votes in the Senate right now,'' Schneider says. Three or four more new Republicans could tip the balance against the White House on issues like higher taxes and defense cuts.
Clinton ``can't afford those kinds of losses,'' Schneider says. Yet such a Republican gain is ``not only possible, it's likely.''
However, Del Ali, an independent pollster with Mason Dixon Opinion Research, doesn't buy all the current gloom and doom about Democratic prospects.
Mr. Ali is surveying public opinion this month in every one of the 35 states where Senate elections will take place. He predicts flatly: ``The Republicans are not going to take the Senate.'' Ali concedes that the Republicans could gain a seat or two. But Democrats also have a chance to avoid any net losses, he says.
A state-by-state look
Looking state-by-state, Ali says the best Republican prospects are in places where Democratic incumbents are quitting. Those include Maine, where Senate majority leader George Mitchell will retire, and Oklahoma, where Sen. David Boren just announced he will resign after this session to become president of the University of Oklahoma.
Four other states where Democratic senators will retire are Michigan (Donald Riegle Jr.), Ohio (Howard Metzenbaum), Arizona (Dennis DeConcini), and Tennessee (Harlan Mathews).
In addition, Republicans are setting their sights on two Democratic senators who look vulnerable: Charles Robb of Virginia and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey.
All this sounds promising for the GOP, Ali concedes. But he says you can't overlook other states where Republicans are staring at potential losses. Those include Republican seats in Wyoming, Missouri, Minnesota, Montana, and possibly Oregon, if Sen. Bob Packwood, the Republican incumbent, resigns because of ethics charges. ``The Republicans may not actually come out better than they are now,'' Ali says - especially if they mishandle their opportunities.
One campaign where Ali predicts a potential GOP debacle is Maryland, where Republicans talk of nominating former United States Sen. William Brock, formerly of Tennessee.
In Maryland, strategy a key
Mr. Brock's opponent would be Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) of Maryland. ``Sarbanes could be beaten, but not by Brock ... Sarbanes would blow him out of the water,'' Ali predicts. But if Maryland Republicans pick another nominee, such as Ron Franks, a state delegate and a moderate on social issues, Ali sees a close race.
If Ali is right, the rumors about Shelby's switch to the GOP won't be so important. But if Ornstein and Schneider are correct, Shelby could provide a critical swing vote in the upcoming 104th Congress.
Shelby issued a statement this week that satisfied neither side. While saying he is currently ``happy in the Democratic Party,'' he added that Democrats should move their agenda ``more to the center politically where ... most Alabamians and most Americans'' are.
Shelby's discomfort with Democrats first broke into the open last year when he jousted with the White House over higher taxes. There were reports then that the Clinton staff tried to hit back at Shelby by moving a NASA facility out of Alabama to Texas.
A Shelby aide says she doubts any jobs were actually at risk, but admits that Alabamians were deeply concerned at the time. Since that time, she says, Clinton has made friendly overtures.