By Dana Milbank
Thursday, September 6, 2007
Nine months after a brain hemorrhage brought him close to death, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) returned yesterday to the Senate floor, where he basked in the tributes and standing ovations of his colleagues.
Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who attempted his own return yesterday, didn't fare quite so well.
Johnson's return was the feel-good story of the summer: Feuding political factions unite to celebrate earnest lawmaker's against-the-odds triumph over illness. "My speech is not 100 percent," the senator said with a still-slurred voice, "but my thoughts are clear, and my mind is sharp." Standing in front of the motorized wheelchair that carried him into the chamber, he brought tears to the eyes of Democrats, Republicans and even reporters in the gallery when he said: "Today, I come home to the United States Senate."
Craig's tale, by contrast, played out like a horror film: Villain's bloodied corpse improbably comes back to life, and weary protagonists must kill him -- again. Craig, only four days after announcing his resignation after his arrest in a sex sting in an airport men's room, called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to revise and extend his resignation remarks.
"I heard from Senator Craig this morning," McConnell announced in a tone that indicated he did not enjoy the conversation. While Craig now wants "to try to finish his term," McConnell added coolly: "I thought he made the correct decision -- the difficult but correct decision -- to resign."
It was an unusual double feature. The two story lines, intertwined through the day, brought out the best and worst of what more than one lawmaker described yesterday as the Senate "family."
Johnson, grinning broadly, wheeled into his office yesterday while his staffers applauded and his onetime rival, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), held open the door. There were baked treats for the senator inside and changes to the layout: an elevated desk, widened aisles and a modified bathroom to accommodate Johnson, who has trouble moving his right side. "I am anxious to get back to work," Johnson announced at the doorway, briefly turning his chair around to give photographers their shot.
In the office doorway, Johnson aide Julianne Fisher recalled the dark moments of December, when "we weren't sure if he'd be making it back here" and the media speculated about whether Johnson's death or incapacity would cost Democrats control of the Senate. "No offense," she said, but "that was very hard for the family." Yesterday, Fisher got her revenge: She ignored reporters' phone calls and barred all but a few from entering the office to talk with Johnson.
Later, more than 80 senators took their seats in the chamber to welcome their convalescing colleague. Johnson wheeled in silently, navigating the wheelchair up a ramp installed for his use. Thune introduced a resolution hailing his onetime opponent for his journey from "near death" back to the Senate. "By his sheer will and determination, Senator Johnson is back," Thune exulted. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) wiped her eyes. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) dabbed her nose. Even Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) brushed away a tear.
Johnson rose to his feet with some difficulty, mouthing a "thank you" for the first of four standing ovations. He supported himself with his left hand on the desk, moving the hand only to turn the pages of his speech, which he read slowly.
"This has been a long and humbling journey," he told his colleagues. "I believe I have been given a second chance at life. I vow to take that second chance and work harder than ever to be the best I can be for my state and my nation." In the tributes that followed, Johnson waved to his wife in the gallery, and senators enjoyed a rare moment of togetherness.
"Many Americans may not realize that we are a family," said Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the oft-combative Senate majority leader. "Sometimes people say this Senate family is dysfunctional, and maybe sometimes it is, but . . . the hundred men and women who serve in this chamber have the deepest respect and admiration for each other."
For once, McConnell agreed with Reid. "The entire Senate family was thrown into a state of shock and worry when Tim Johnson was rushed to the hospital," he said.
His tribute to Johnson over, McConnell left the chamber, cleared his throat, and began to speak about Craig to the TV cameras. "If he is able to get the case favorably disposed of in Minneapolis" -- site of his airport arrest -- "it would be his intention to come back to the Senate," McConnell reported, adding that it "would still be my view" that Craig should quit.
Would McConnell welcome Craig back? "This matter, if Sen. Craig is still in the Senate, will be referred to the ethics committee," the senator told reporters.
Would Republican senators "embrace Senator Craig" if he could undo his guilty plea? "I think I've pretty well covered all I have to say about the Craig matter," McConnell said.
Did Republican senators discuss the ethics problems over lunch? "Anything on any other subject?" McConnell requested. "I really have covered this issue."
Tough love, to be sure. But sometimes that's what a family needs.