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When a Lawmaker Is Incapacitated
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 20, 2001

Question: I know that U.S. Senators have resigned for health or other reasons, but has one ever been removed from office because he/she was physically incapacitated or unable to discharge the duties of the office for health-related reasons?
– Myra Sletson, Rebersburg, Penn.
Mundt's stroke caused him to miss the final three years of his Senate term. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Answer: No. The only way the Senate can remove a member is by a vote to expel, and there has never been any desire to do that for a health-related cause. Sen. Karl Mundt (R-S.D.) suffered a debilitating stroke in 1969 but refused to resign and stayed in office until his term expired in January 1973 - although he never showed up for work following his infirmity. Republicans pressured Mundt to step down shortly before the 1970 elections, when it appeared the GOP was going to lose the governorship, and with it their ability to appoint a Senate successor. There was never talk of a motion to expel, though the Republican Conference eventually did strip him of his committee assignments. In November of that year, a Democrat was elected governor, so the Republicans who were urging Mundt's resignation turned to hoping he would serve until his term expired.

There were other, similar situations. Rep. John Grotberg (R-Ill.) lapsed into a coma in January 1986 after participation in an experimental program for his colon cancer caused him to have a heart seizure. His family and staff refused to consider resignation, and the House took no action. He even won re-nomination to the House in the March GOP primary that year, but his family finally relented and announced he would not run again. He remained a member of the House until his death in November 1986.

In the spring of 1964, Sen. Clair Engle (D-Calif.) was dying of brain cancer, but refused Democratic entreaties to resign. In June, when the Senate voted to break the filibuster that had stymied the civil rights bill, the dying Engle was wheeled onto the Senate floor to vote for cloture by motioning with his hand. He died a month later.

In the spring of 1943, Sen. Carter Glass (D-Va.) was 85 years old, in poor health and simply stopped coming to work. He died in May of 1946, still a senator but no longer a visitor to Capitol Hill. And according to Sen. Robert Byrd's (D-W.Va.) invaluable book of Senate historical statistics, Sen. James Grimes (R-Iowa) suffered a stroke in 1869 and remained in office as an invalid until his death in February of 1872. But there was no move in the Senate to declare any of the aforementioned seats vacant.
The House declared Spellman's seat vacant in '81. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

The only instance I can think of where lawmakers took action involved Gladys Spellman of Maryland. The Democratic House member suffered a massive heart attack in October of 1980 while campaigning that left her in a semi-conscious, coma-like state from which she never emerged. She won re-election with ease, but once it was determined that there was no prospect for recovery, the House voted to declare the seat vacant in February 1981.

Question: Can you tell me anything about a fight which took place in the U.S. Senate in 1902 between South Carolina senators John McLaurin and Benjamin Tillman?
– Pat Flynn, Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, Ireland

Answer: Their rivalry is told in Stephen Kantrowitz’s superb biography, Ben Tillman & The Reconstruction of White Supremacy (University of North Carolina Press, 2000). "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, who served as governor and senator, was a farmer’s advocate and his state’s favorite son presidential candidate at the 1896 Democratic convention. He also was a white supremacist demagogue whose rhetoric bordered on violence.

Kantrowitz writes that Tillman felt that McLaurin, his fellow South Carolina Democratic senator and former ally, had sold out to the state’s cotton mill owners. At one point during their frequent debates and arguments they both agreed to resign from the Senate and have the legislature hold a special election to choose between the two, but the governor refused to go along with the plan. Tillman’s fistfight with McLaurin began with a Tillman Senate speech in which he accused his rival of corruption. Kantrowitz writes that McLaurin then called Tillman a liar, "whereupon Tillman rushed across the chamber and punched the onetime reformer in the face. McLaurin struck back, bloodying Tillman’s nose before the doorkeeper and several other senators stepped in. Moving immediately into closed session, the Senate unanimously judged both men to be in contempt." The feud didn’t end there, and neither would apologize. Tillman won the last battle, however, when he arranged for McLaurin’s defeat for renomination in 1902.

By the way, Tillman got the nickname "Pitchfork Ben" when he declared he would go after President Grover Cleveland, a fellow Democrat, "with a pitchfork and prod him in his old fat ribs."

Question: I read your Feb. 9 column in which you talk about the rumor that Arnold Schwarzenegger might run for governor of California. I know he could be governor but never president because he is not a natural-born American. I also know that he (or any naturalized citizen) could run for Congress, and eventually (possibly) become speaker of the House. If that were to happen, he would be third in line for the presidency. If something were to happen to both the president and vice president, would Schwarzenegger become president, or would he be skipped over because he is ineligible to be president? Are there similar restrictions on a member of Congress from becoming Speaker of the House and/or President Pro Tempore?
– Richard Canty, Dallas, Tex.

Answer: Schwarzenegger is eligible to run for Congress and would thus be eligible to become Speaker of the House or, for that matter, Senate President Pro Tem. But he would be passed over for the presidency because of his Austrian birth. The same scenario held for the Clinton administration's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. Even though her post put her fourth in line to the presidency, Albright would have been skipped because she was born in Czechoslovakia.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.

© Copyright 2001 Ken Rudin


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