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In the 83rd Congress, a Senate in Constant Turmoil

Are you a fan of Nancy Pelosi (or Tony Bennett, Carole King or Wyclef Jean)? You have six weeks to find $15,000.
Are you a fan of Nancy Pelosi (or Tony Bennett, Carole King or Wyclef Jean)? You have six weeks to find $15,000. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)

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By Al Kamen
Friday, December 15, 2006

Sen. Tim Johnson's sudden illness has consumed the political class the past two days. Everyone is talking about what happens if the South Dakota Democrat leaves the Senate and is replaced by a Republican to create a 50-50 split. Democrats and Republicans alike are rushing out statements saying the standard "our thoughts and prayers are with him." That is, at a minimum, half true.

But the unsettled situation pales when compared with the bizarre 83rd Congress in 1953 and 1954, during which nine of the then-96 senators died, including one who committed suicide, and one resigned.

When the Senate convened on Jan. 3, 1953, the GOP was in charge 48 to 47, plus one former Republican, Sen. Wayne L. Morse-- an independent so independent that he moved his seat to the Senate aisle and would not vote with the Democrats to organize.

By Aug. 3 of that year, when the first session adjourned, three members -- including Majority Leader Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio) -- had died. When the next session began in January 1954, the Democrats had become the majority, 48-47-1, but they did not assume control. At one point during that session, as various members died, the D's even had a two-vote lead, but they never challenged Republican control of the body. The Senate adjourned Aug. 20 back where it had started, with the GOP holding a one-vote majority.

So why didn't the Democrats take over? For one thing, seems the "minority" leader, Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-Tex.), didn't particularly want to. He preferred to have the Republicans deal with Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), according to Senate associate historian Donald A. Ritchie.

It was an ugly time at the Senate. Sen. Lester Hunt (D-Wyo.) committed suicide, shooting himself in his office in the Old Senate Office Building on June 19, 1954. McCarthyites were after Hunt, who strongly opposed McCarthy, and they threatened to reveal that Hunt's son had been arrested the year before, accused of soliciting a male undercover police officer in Lafayette Square. The McCarthyites wanted Hunt to announce he would not run again. He did so, then killed himself.

More important, there was "no way the Democrats could have claimed a majority," Ritchie said, "because the Republicans could have blocked them" with a filibuster, and in the Senate, most everything can be filibustered -- even by the minority.

The Democrats' Five-Figure Fete

Mark your calendars! The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's first invite of the new year is to a "Swearing In Brunch and Celebration Concert" honoring Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi on Jan. 4. The brunch is at 10:30 in the Members of Congress Room of the Library of Congress. "Please RSVP by December 20th."

The concert at the National Building Museum features Tony Bennett, Carole King and Wyclef Jean. Should be a most excellent show, though perhaps not worth each PAC's $15,000 "requested contribution" for two tickets. Make checks payable to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Checkbook a little depleted these days? Not to worry. They give you till the end of next month to pay up.

Hmmm . . . 15 large? Tom DeLay would be proud.

A Diplomat and a Scholar

For those of you keeping score, another name has emerged as a strong contender to become the next Saudi ambassador here. He's Mishal bin Abdullah, son of the Saudi king and now at the United Nations in New York. He's minister-in-charge at the Saudi ministry of foreign affairs.

Meanwhile, Loop Fans, after checking their yearbooks and memories, have been writing to say that although outgoing ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal attended Georgetown University, he never graduated. Indeed, the Saudi Embassy bio does not say that he did. Turki "pursued an undergraduate degree at Georgetown University," the bio says, but it doesn't say whether he ever caught one.

From Foreign to Domestic

Musical chairs . . . Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office who now sits in the Paul A. Volcker Chair for International Economics at the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations here, will be sitting next month in the Economic Policy Chair, John McCain2008, the Exploratory Committee, which is in Arlington.

In his new job, Holtz-Eakin will be lining up against advisers to another potential presidential candidate, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: R. Glenn Hubbard and N. Greg Mankiw, both former White House Council of Economic Advisers chairs for President Bush. (Okay, maybe they don't have hyphenated last names, but their names each begin with an initial.) So the early indications are that Romney will be the tax cutter and McCain will be the spending cutter? And we know what the voters have always preferred.

A One-Sided Conversation

Noted Bush observation. At his news conference last week, President Bush said: "I talk to families who die."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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