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December 14, 2006

Sen. Johnson In Critical Condition After Emergency Brain Surgery

Obviously our hopes are with him.

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) underwent emergency brain surgery overnight after falling ill at the Capitol and was in critical condition early this morning, introducing a note of uncertainty over control of the Senate just weeks before Democrats are to take over with a one-vote margin.

Johnson, 59, was taken to George Washington University Hospital early yesterday afternoon, shortly after becoming disoriented during a conference call with news reporters. He underwent "a comprehensive evaluation by the stroke team," his office said. Aides later said he had not suffered a stroke or heart attack.

Nursing supervisor Quinn Collins said early today that the senator was out of surgery and in critical condition. Hospital officials and Johnson aides offered no further comment or details; a more complete statement was expected later this morning.

The two-term senator's illness -- which sent Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) rushing to the hospital to check on Johnson -- underscored the fragility of Democrats' hold on the next Senate, which they won by the narrowest of margins in the Nov. 7 elections. Should Johnson be unable to complete his term, South Dakota's Republican governor, Michael Rounds, would name a replacement for the next two years.

With Johnson in office, Democrats would hold a 51-to-49 edge in the Senate that convenes Jan. 4 as part of the 110th Congress. (The two independents have said they will caucus with the Democrats.) But if he is to leave office before then and Rounds replaces him with a Republican, the GOP would control the chamber.

In a 50-50 Senate, Vice President Cheney could break tie votes in the GOP's favor. But a Senate that becomes evenly split after it is in session would not necessarily fall to Republicans, Senate historians said. Rules and precedents could leave a party in charge of the chamber even after its membership falls below that of the other party.

"It's what happens in January that counts," said Senate associate historian Donald A. Ritchie, referring to when party leaders hash out rules governing the chamber's organization.

Rounds's office declined to comment on the situation yesterday except for a statement from the governor, which offered prayers for Johnson and hope for "good news for our friend and colleague."

Johnson spokesman Noah Pinegar said the senator "became disoriented" during a late-morning conference call with reporters, placed from the Capitol's Senate recording studio. "He had difficulty completing a response to a question," Pinegar said, so aides ended the call and walked with him back to Hart Senate Office Building.

Democrats will not necessarily yield control, even if Sen. Johnson is unable to sit as a Senator. In addition, a liberal Republican may refuse to allow a change in power:

In order to adopt new rules organizing the Senate, the two parties must reach nearly unanimous agreement. Democrats in 2001 blocked the naming of committee chairmen and members, demanding concessions before agreeing to the rules. Among those concessions: Should the numerical advantage change, all committee assignments and chairmanships would be nullified, and a new organization would have to be submitted.

That's what happened, not because of a death but because disgruntled moderate Republican Sen. James M. Jeffords (Vt.) decided to caucus with the Democrats, giving them a 51-49 edge and the powers of the majority. Senate Republican sources said yesterday that their party is likely to press for similar concessions when negotiating the operating rules for the next Congress. But even if Johnson were incapacitated, Democratic aides say, they would resist.

A different scenario unfolded in 1954, after the deaths and replacements of several senators over two years. Republicans remained the majority party even though Democrats eventually outnumbered them, 48 to 47, with one independent. Democratic leader Lyndon B. Johnson did not challenge the GOP's control, in part, historians said, because the independent, Wayne L. Morse of Oregon, warned that he would caucus with the Republicans if need be. That would have led to a 48-48 chamber, and Vice President Richard M. Nixon would have broken the tie in Republicans' favor.


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posted by Ace at 09:51 AM

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