Democrats said Thursday they expect to take control of the Senate next month as planned, after Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota survived emergency brain surgery hours earlier.
The Capitol’s physician, Adm. John Eisold, said an operation to drain blood from Johnson’s brain had been successful and that he was "recovering without complication." Nevertheless, the 59-year-old Democrat remained in critical condition.
Aides and lawmakers wouldn’t say whether Johnson would be able to return to work when the Senate convenes on Jan. 4, 2007 — or even if Johnson was conscious after surgery.
What mattered from a political perspective was that he was alive. A senator can be incapacitated or indefinitely absent without relinquishing his or her seat. If Johnson remains in office, Democrats will run the Senate with a 51-49 majority. (Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut won re-election as an Independent, but has vowed to join the Democrats for organizing purposes. So has Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont.) Democrats also won a 31-seat majority — 233-202 — in the House of Representatives in November’s elections.
However, if Johnson were to vacate his Senate seat, South Dakota’s Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican, would name a replacement to serve the final two years of Johnson’s term.
If Rounds appointed a Republican, that would lead to a 50-50 partisan split in the Senate, with Vice President Dick Cheney, a Republican, having the power to cast tie-breaking votes — including on top leadership posts and how committees are organized, said Senate historian Richard Baker. In that scenario, the Democrats’ dramatic victory in November’s mid-term Senate elections could be lost before they ever take power.
But that seemed increasingly unlikely Thursday.
"There isn’t a thing that’s changed," Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the next majority leader, said in a midday update after briefing Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the next minority leader. "The Republicans selected their committees yesterday. We’ve completed ours. . . .
"We’re all praying for a full recovery," Reid said. "We’re confident that will be the case."
Reid spent much of the previous night at the George Washington University Hospital in Washington. Johnson was rushed there Wednesday afternoon from Capitol Hill after becoming disoriented and suffering other stroke-like symptoms. Other lawmakers and friends stopped by the hospital throughout the day Thursday.
Doctors ruled out a stroke or heart attack. Instead, they determined that Johnson has a congenital malformation that causes blood vessels in the brain to tangle and burst.
Eisold said Thursday morning that it was too soon to know Johnson’s long-term prognosis or whether he would need another operation.
At 5 p.m., Johnson’s office issued a second statement from Eisold, saying that Johnson "has continued to have an uncomplicated post-operative course. Specifically, he has been appropriately responsive to both word and touch. No further surgical intervention has been required."
Johnson’s staff seemed upbeat. Around noon, several of his staff members gathered privately for pizza. One told a visitor, "He’s going to be fine."
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who’ll be the second-ranking Republican in the next Senate, told Fox News: "My expectation and hope is that Tim will recover fully and come back and we’ll go to work. You know, I’d like to be in the majority, but I don’t want to do it that way."
In the 20th century, several senators took extended absences for illness without resigning, historian Baker said.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., missed seven months after surgery for a brain aneurysm in 1988. He’s now incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Karl Mundt, a South Dakota Republican, had a debilitating stroke in 1969 but refused to leave until his term was up in January 1973.
Clair Engle, a California Democrat, could not talk or walk after brain cancer surgeries, but was brought into the chamber for a key vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the month before he died.