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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.

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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