The next election is for Senate majority leader Nov. 28, usually mere ritual but this year a tense process creating tremors in major interest groups, in part because it threatens a chain reaction that could leave liberals in charge of the Senate's powerful committees on taxes and energy.
The outcome of the majority leader's race could have other repercussions and is being watched intently in the nation's farm states, at the State Department and in foreign ministries around the world.
The reasons lie in the complex interplay of last Tuesday's election results and traditions under which committee chairmanships are governed by seniority and limited to one per senator.
Among the main players are:
* Conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), whose reelection victory gives him a choice of remaining as chairman of the Agriculture Committee or moving to Foreign Relations, whose more moderate chairman, Charles H. Percy, lost in Illinois.
* Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who is running for majority leader and is next in seniority to Helms on Agriculture. If Helms moves, Lugar, a leading opponent of the tobacco program crucial to farmers in Helms' state, could become chairman.
* Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee, who also wants to be majority leader.
* Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), the moderate who will be in line to succeed Dole on Finance if Dole moves up. That would put Packwood, often a bitter Reagan administration critic, in charge of the tax-simplification program likely to be one of President Reagan's most important initiatives next year.
The other three candidates in the five-man race for majority leader are Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho) and Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M).
The leadership issue will be resolved in a Senate Republican caucus Nov. 28; committee chairmen will be selected -- also by the caucus if the seniority tradition is challenged -- after the 99th Congress convenes in January.
While the two events are separated by weeks, concern over the committee chairmanships is so intense that the race for majority leader could well be decided by issues, outside pressures and personal ambitions at stake in the committee lineup.
It is one of the main subjects of gossip and intrigue in official Washington, something just Byzantine enough to fill a Washington insider's boredom gap between the presidential election and the opening of the 99th Congress.
This is what appears to be at stake:
The Foreign Relations Committee could wind up next January under the control of Helms or, if he turns it down, under Lugar or moderate Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.).
Lugar is an administration loyalist, but Helms and Mathias often have opposed the administration's foreign policy from opposite extremes. Helms in particular has set nerves on edge at the State Department, whose politics and personnel he has challenged as not assertive enough toward the Soviet Union, even during the Reagan administration. Some foreign embassies are no less disenchanted at the prospect of Helms, who opposes foreign aid and has backed right-wing dictators.
Mathias, third in line behind Helms and Lugar, has been sharply critical of the administration on such central issues as arms control.
The Agriculture Committee faces an equally dazzling range of choices spanning the spectrum from Helms and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), cheerleaders for the farm-subsidy program, to Lugar, who has fought it and won a few skirmishes.
Prospects are less iffy but no less dramatic for the Finance Committee and Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Energy Chairman McClure also wants to be majority leader. Next in line to head the energy committee is liberal Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), like Packwood on Finance a maverick who has not flinched at defying the Reagan administration.
Packwood, despite his liberal reputation, has taken a relatively conventional Republican position on the Finance Committee. But he undoubtedly is not the president's first choice for a helpmate in developing a tax-simplification plan.
Weicker, who represents an eastern consumer state and has staked out an independent position on energy issues, is especially unnerving to the Sun Belt energy industry, which has grown accustomed to the light, friendly hand of western senators as chairmen of the committee.
Lugar is a central figure in the game of musical chairs, because through a quirk of fate he is second in line both at Foreign Relations and Agriculture as well as a candidate for majority leader.
In line behind Lugar on Foreign Relations is Mathias, who causes as much angst on the right as Helms does on the left.
For Agriculture, the choice is just about as stark, with Cochran in line behind Lugar.
All of this presents a dicey proposition for Helms.
If Lugar doesn't win the majority leadership race and Helms takes the Foreign Relations chairmanship, Helms would be responsible for putting the control of the Agriculture Committee in the hands of Lugar, whose opposition to farm subsidies embraces tobacco- and peanut-support programs dear to North Carolina farmers.
If he stays on as Agriculture chairman, Helms could be responsible for making Mathias chairman of Foreign Relations.
Helms' problems are compounded in two more ways: He promised repeatedly during his hard-fought campaign for reelection to stay on as Agriculture chairman, but he owes his reelection to the support of national right-wing forces who are pressing him hard to take the Foreign Relations post.
Adding to the pressures on Helms is the prospect of a major overhaul of the farm program next year, when tobacco supports are expected to be in jeopardy.
One suggestion floating around Capitol Hill last week was that Helms might stay on Agriculture until the farm bill is passed and then move to Foreign Relations. But this could leave little if any time for Helms to serve as Foreign Relations chairman because the Democrats are the odds-on favorites to take over the Senate in two years.
There has also been a suggestion that Helms might take the Foreign Relations Committee post but protect his home-state flank by engineering the creation of a tobacco subcommittee, which he could head under Senate rules.
Yet another more complex scheme would hinge on Lugar's winning the majority leader's race, Helms taking over Foreign Relations and Cochran assuming control of Agriculture. This would satisfy the right wing (by elevating Helms and preempting Mathias), the tobacco lobby (by keeping Agriculture in "safe" hands) and Lugar (by giving him the job he wants).
Still another one would block both Helms and Mathias by locking Lugar into the Foreign Relations Committee slot.
Meanwhile, the other two candidates for majority leader, Majority Whip Stevens and Budget Committee Chairman Domenici, plod along in relative obscurity.
Some of their colleagues suggested last week that obscurity in this case has its advantages. Stevens, despite the volatile temper that appeared to rule him out earlier, has taken on new clout as a contender, some senators say.
People chuckled when Stevens, in touting his qualifications for majority leader, listed the fact that he wasn't a committee chairman. They aren't laughing any more.