West Virginia's election law makes the replacement process for Sen. Byrd's seat pretty murky.

The letter of the law says if it's two years and six months or more from replacement to term end (which would officially be Jan 3, 2013), then the governor appoints a replacement until the general election.

BUT -- two things are unclear.

1- Democratic West Virginia Governor Manchin appears to have the ability to proclaim when the vacancy occurs. Manchin appears to hold ALL the cards here.

2- We are well past the candidate filing deadline.

And here's what one senior Democratic campaign strategist tells Fox:

"As for guidance on the process, Manchin appoints. We believe no election till 2012. Lawyers tell us it's not perfect picture of clarity but that it's unlikely the SOS [Secretary of State] statute applies because the filing deadline for 2010 has already passed…something about timeliness of a candidacy. We are checking more, but it's likely that the Governor’s office is going to drive this. They get to call for elections – not SOS [Secretary of State].

[A] blind quote from Manchin’s team [said] that its 2012 and NRSC [National Republican Senatorial Committee] tells the Hill they think its 2012 too: Officials with the National Republican Senatorial Committee said Sunday they didn't expect a special election for the remainder of the term."

While Byrd's passing will not ultimately affect the balance in the Senate, the fate of one bill certainly hangs in the balance until a replacement can be seated: the financial regulatory reform bill.

And as long as Republicans remain united, there can be no extension of unemployment insurance benefits or other safety net bills, if they are not offset by spending cuts.