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Democratic Sen. Johnson in Stable Condition After Brain Surgery

Daschle said in an interview: "I am encouraged. He is doing reasonably well. . . . There was progress today."

Reid would not entertain the possibility that Johnson's illness could conceivably cost his party the Senate majority before the 110th Congress convenes in three weeks.

Senate seats can become vacant between elections only by death or resignation. "There is no mechanism" to remove even a severely incapacitated senator against his or her will, said the associate Senate historian, Donald A. Ritchie. In the 1940s, he said, then-Sen. Carter Glass of Virginia missed four years of votes and other Senate activities yet held his seat.

In 1964, Ritchie said, then-Sen. Clair Engle of California was wheeled into the chamber despite suffering from a brain tumor. "He pointed to his eye" to indicate his "aye" vote for an important measure, Ritchie said.

If Johnson's recovery should leave him unable to attend the new Congress's opening, Democrats would still hold a 50 to 49 voting edge and the majority.

Republicans have health concerns of their own. Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) won election to a third six-year term on Nov. 7 and began treatment for leukemia two days later. A Senate vacancy in Wyoming would be filled by Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat.

In 2001, Republicans controlled a 50-50 Senate, thanks to Cheney's tie-breaking authority. The chamber suddenly shifted to Democratic control when Sen. James M. Jeffords (Vt.) left the GOP and caucused with Democrats.

Republicans might have managed to thwart the power shift had they not agreed earlier to an organizing resolution granting majority privileges to Democrats if they achieved a numerical advantage. Without that agreement, Republicans might have been able to filibuster or otherwise block Democrats' efforts to reorganize the chamber in their favor.

Daschle negotiated the 2001 deal for his party. Asked if GOP leaders are likely to seek similar language in the next Senate's organizing resolution, Daschle said via e-mail that "it is reasonable to expect that the precedents we set in '00 and '01 will serve as a guide in '07."

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) declined to comment on such matters yesterday, saying only that he wished Johnson a full and speedy recovery.

Reid's and McConnell's efforts to negotiate the next Senate's organizing rules could prove challenging, because both parties are in a position to block the rules' adoption through unlimited debate. Republicans might cite the 2001 language as a precedent, said Reid spokesman Jim Manley, but Democrats will note that the rules for the subsequent Senate -- which Republicans controlled 51 to 49 -- contained no such provisions.

Congressional aides said the 51 to 49 Democratic edge could play into the hands of senators such as Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.). Elected last month as an independent after losing the Democratic primary, he is the subject of frequent speculation that he might emulate Jeffords by joining the GOP if his Democratic colleagues displease him.

Senators may rush to support Lieberman's bills, one GOP aide said yesterday, "and if he holds a fundraiser, everybody will be there."

Staff writers Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Christopher Lee contributed to this report.

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