Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson Falls Ill, Undergoes Surgery

By Charles Babington and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) was in surgery last night after falling ill at the Capitol, introducing a note of uncertainty over control of the Senate just weeks before Democrats are to take over with a one-vote margin.

Johnson, 59, was taken to George Washington University Hospital shortly after noon, where he underwent "a comprehensive evaluation by the stroke team," his office said. Aides later said he had not suffered a stroke or heart attack, but they offered no further comment or details of the surgery.

The two-term senator's illness -- which sent Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) rushing to the hospital to check on Johnson -- underscored the fragility of Democrats' hold on the next Senate, which they won by the narrowest of margins in the Nov. 7 elections. Should Johnson be unable to complete his term, South Dakota's Republican governor, Michael Rounds, would name a replacement for the next two years.

With Johnson in office, Democrats would hold a 51-to-49 edge in the Senate that convenes Jan. 4 as part of the 110th Congress. (The two independents have said they will caucus with the Democrats.) But if he is to leave office before then and Rounds replaces him with a Republican, the GOP would control the chamber.

In a 50-50 Senate, Vice President Cheney could break tie votes in the GOP's favor. But a Senate that becomes evenly split after it is in session would not necessarily fall to Republicans, Senate historians said. Rules and precedents could leave a party in charge of the chamber even after its membership falls below that of the other party.

"It's what happens in January that counts," said Senate associate historian Donald A. Ritchie, referring to when party leaders hash out rules governing the chamber's organization.

Rounds's office declined to comment on the situation yesterday except for a statement from the governor, which offered prayers for Johnson and hope for "good news for our friend and colleague."

Johnson spokesman Noah Pinegar said the senator "became disoriented" during a late-morning conference call with reporters, placed from the Capitol's Senate recording studio. "He had difficulty completing a response to a question," Pinegar said, so aides ended the call and walked with him back to Hart Senate Office Building.

When they arrived, Pinegar said, Johnson "wasn't himself." A team from the Capitol physician's office quickly arrived and sent the senator to the hospital by ambulance. Johnson's wife, Barbara, was with him at the hospital as tests were being conducted last night, Pinegar said.

Reid spent much of the afternoon and evening with Johnson's family at the hospital, said spokesman Jim Manley. He would not comment on Johnson's condition.

The Sioux Falls Argus Leader's Web site said that Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D-S.D.) asked constituents to pray for Johnson and that she said she thought Johnson had suffered a severe stroke. But that was before Johnson's staff had ruled out a stroke.

The only time that partisan control of the Senate changed in mid-session, historians say, was in 2001. Republicans began the year controlling the 50-50 chamber with Cheney's tie-breaking vote. But Democrats, mindful of the recent sudden death of Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), were aware they could be a heartbeat away from the majority.

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