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Johnson's Illness Clouds Future of Senate Control

Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota was recovering from brain surgery Thursday at George Washington University Hospital.

U.S. Capitol physician Adm. John Eisold visited the senator Thursday afternoon. "He has been appropriately responsive to both word and touch. No further surgical intervention has been required," Eisold told reporters.

The senator's spokeswoman, Julianne Fisher, confirmed in an e-mail exchange with The Associated that Johnson was responding to spoken commands.

As official Washington extends good wishes for Sen. Johnson's recovery, it also puzzles over the effect that his illness may have on the Senate.

Johnson, 59, was in critical condition as of Thursday. He has been diagnosed with a condition called arteriovenous malformation (AVM). Surgeons overnight were able to relieve the pressure on his brain caused by enlarged blood vessels impinging on each other, which can lead to bleeding in the brain. Initial diagnosis indicated that Johnson's case was a serious one, and it would involve months of recovery to overcome what may be partial paralysis and aphasia -- the loss of the ability to speak.

Johnson is among the 50 Democrats preparing to take part in the Senate of the 110th Congress. There is one independent, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is expected to organize with the Democrats and give them a majority of 51. If Johnson is not present for the organizational votes, Democrats would still have a majority of 50-49.

But if Johnson were to die or resign, his seat would be vacant. By South Dakota law, a vacancy would be filled by the governor's appointee until the end of Johnson's current term, two years hence. A full-term successor would be elected in November 2008. South Dakota last month re-elected its Republican governor, Mike Rounds, who has been considered the leading candidate to oppose Johnson for this Senate seat in 2008.

Rounds could appoint anyone who is constitutionally qualified to fill the office for the rest of Johnson's term. But he would be expected to appoint a member of his own party, as usually happens when governors have this opportunity.

Rounds' appointee would make the Senate 50-50, in which case Republicans would claim the majority, because the president of the Senate can break tie votes. The Senate president is the Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney, who has broken ties in the chamber on several occasions. During the first six months of 2001, when the Senate was temporarily 50-50, Cheney's tie-breaking vote kept the Republicans in the majority.

The chief advantage of holding the majority is the power to name the chairmen of all the committees of the Senate, where chairmen enjoy substantial agenda-setting power. The majority party also takes the lead in organizing floor debate and supervising floor procedures, although the power of individuals under Senate rules is paramount.

If Johnson survives but is incapacitated, there will be debate over whether he should resign. Actual vacancies occur only when a member either dies or resigns. On many occasions in Senate history, senators have held their seats while unable to vote or participate in Senate business. There is a recent precedent even in South Dakota, where Karl Mundt, a Republican, suffered a stroke in 1969.

Johnson, a longtime voice for farmers, was elected to his second term in the Senate in 2002, prevailing by just 528 votes out of more than 334,000 cast. He had served 10 years in the House before his first election to the Senate in 1996.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.