Democratic Sen. Johnson in Stable Condition After Brain Surgery

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2006

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) was in stable condition yesterday after emergency brain surgery, prompting optimism among family and friends and at least temporarily stanching speculation that the Democrats' narrow control of the next Senate might be in jeopardy.

But Capitol aides predicted tough negotiations between the two parties early next month over the rules for organizing the new Senate, particularly those that would address the possibility that a Democratic seat could be vacated because of illness or death.

Even if Johnson recuperates fully, aides and advisers said, Democrats will be painfully aware that they remain one fatal illness -- or one party switch -- away from a Republican claim on their majority, which has stood at 51 to 49 since the Nov. 7 elections. The two parties may clash in particular over an agreement made in 2001 that enabled Democrats to seize the majority after one Republican senator switched parties. Republicans are likely to try to revive the precedent, according to the congressional aides, and Democrats are likely to fight it.

Johnson, 59, was rushed from his Senate office to George Washington University Hospital on Wednesday, suffering from bleeding in the brain caused by a congenital tangle of blood vessels, the U.S. Capitol physician said yesterday.

"He underwent successful surgery to evacuate the blood and stabilize the malformation," said the physician, Adm. John Eisold. He later said that Johnson "has continued to have an uncomplicated post-operative course. Specifically, he has been appropriately responsive to both word and touch. No further surgical intervention has been required."

Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and former party leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) visited Johnson at the hospital Wednesday and yesterday. Reid later told reporters at the Capitol that Johnson "really looks good" and was receiving "the best care." He declined to say whether Johnson was conscious during his visits.

The Constitution provides for governors to fill U.S. Senate vacancies, whereas House vacancies must be filled through elections. Johnson can remain in the Senate through the end of his term, regardless of his medical condition. In recent decades, senators have missed up to four years of votes because of illness or old age without giving up their seats.

Should Johnson's seat become vacant before Jan. 4, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican, could replace him with a Republican, resulting in a 50-50 Senate when Congress opens. Vice President Cheney, as Senate president, would break tie votes in the Republicans' favor, giving them the majority.

If Johnson's or any other Democrat's seat switches to the GOP after the new Senate is underway, however, even Cheney's tie-breaking powers could leave Republicans facing a difficult-to-impossible battle to seize control. Barring an agreement to the contrary, Democrats could filibuster efforts to reorganize the chamber and proceed to assume committee chairmanships.

"There isn't a thing that's changed," Reid said of his party's 51 to 49 edge. Both parties have made their committee assignments, he said, and he is "getting ready for the next year."

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) told Fox News: "My expectation and hope is that Tim will recover fully and come back and we'll go to work. You know, I'd like to be in the majority, but I don't want to do it that way."

Although Johnson's illness was the talk of Washington yesterday, politicians in both parties refrained from publicly discussing how the two-term senator's illness might affect the incoming 110th Congress. A few Democratic lobbyists and their spouses were dining Wednesday night at Sesto Senso, an Italian restaurant near Dupont Circle. As they discussed Johnson's condition, they folded their hands as if praying for him, a gesture that appeared tinged with political as well as heartfelt sentiments.

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