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Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson Falls Ill, Undergoes Surgery
In order to adopt new rules organizing the Senate, the two parties must reach nearly unanimous agreement. Democrats in 2001 blocked the naming of committee chairmen and members, demanding concessions before agreeing to the rules. Among those concessions: Should the numerical advantage change, all committee assignments and chairmanships would be nullified, and a new organization would have to be submitted.
That's what happened, not because of a death but because disgruntled moderate Republican Sen. James M. Jeffords (Vt.) decided to caucus with the Democrats, giving them a 51-49 edge and the powers of the majority. Senate Republican sources said yesterday that their party is likely to press for similar concessions when negotiating the operating rules for the next Congress. But even if Johnson were incapacitated, Democratic aides say, they would resist.
A different scenario unfolded in 1954, after the deaths and replacements of several senators over two years. Republicans remained the majority party even though Democrats eventually outnumbered them, 48 to 47, with one independent. Democratic leader Lyndon B. Johnson did not challenge the GOP's control, in part, historians said, because the independent, Wayne L. Morse of Oregon, warned that he would caucus with the Republicans if need be. That would have led to a 48-48 chamber, and Vice President Richard M. Nixon would have broken the tie in Republicans' favor.
Tim Johnson has a quiet demeanor and low profile in Washington, but he won two impressive Senate victories. As a House member in 1996, he ousted GOP Sen. Larry Pressler, then chairman of the Commerce Committee.
Six years later, Johnson managed a 524-vote win over Republican John Thune. Thune returned two years later to defeat Thomas A. Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, in a costly, closely watched election.
Thune had attacked Johnson for voting against the Persian Gulf War resolution in January 1991. When Congress in 2002 debated authorizing Bush to invade Iraq, Johnson announced he would vote aye.
In a floor speech, he said: "There is a strong possibility that I may be voting to send my own son into combat, and that gives me special empathy for the families of other American service men and women whose own sons and daughters may also be sent to Iraq. Nevertheless, I am willing to cast this vote -- one of the most important in my career both as a senator and certainly as a father -- because I recognize the threat that Saddam Hussein represents to world peace."
The senator's son, Staff Sgt. Brooks Johnson, was stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq before becoming an Army recruiter in Illinois.
Given Johnson's narrow reelection win over Thune, and South Dakota's GOP tilt -- Bush carried the state by 22 percentage points in 2004 -- Republicans consider Johnson one of their top targets in the 2008 Senate elections.
The leading candidate to oppose him is Rounds, who was reelected to a second term last month. Johnson had previously committed to seeking a third term. Should he not run, Democrats probably would turn first to Herseth, who easily won reelection last month.
Staff writers Lyndsey Layton and Allan Lengel, political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb, staff researcher Madonna Lebling and washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.