WASHINGTON – Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., underwent surgery Wednesday night after falling ill at the Capitol, 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 shortly after noon, where he underwent “a comprehensive evaluation by the stroke team,” his office said. Aides later said he had not suffered a stroke or heart attack.
The hospital would provide no details on his condition or the reason for the surgery Wednesday night.
The two-term senator’s illness – which sent Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid of Nevada 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 election. 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. But if he left office before then and Rounds replaced him with a Republican, the GOP would control the chamber.
In a 50-50 Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney would be able to break tie votes in the GOP’s favor. But a Senate that became evenly split after it was 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 fell below that of the other party.
“It’s what happens in January that counts,” said Senate associate historian Donald Ritchie, referring to when party leaders hash out rules governing the chamber’s organization.
Rounds’ office declined to comment on the situation Wednesday except for a statement from the governor that 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.
When they arrived, Pinegar said, Johnson “wasn’t himself.” A team from the Capitol physician’s office quickly arrived and sent the senator to the hospital by ambulance. Johnson’s wife, Barbara, was with him at the hospital as tests were being conducted Wednesday night, Pinegar said.
Reid spent much of the afternoon and evening with Johnson’s family at the hospital, said spokesman Jim Manley. He would not comment on Johnson’s condition.
The only time partisan control of the Senate changed in midsession, historians say, was in 2001. Republicans began the year controlling the 50-50 chamber with Cheney’s tie-breaking vote. But Democrats, mindful of the sudden death of Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., six months earlier, were aware they could be a heartbeat away from the majority.
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 new organization would have to be submitted.
That’s what happened, not because of a death but because disgruntled moderate Republican Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont decided to caucus with the Democrats, giving them a 51-49 edge and the powers of the majority. Senate Republican sources said Wednesday 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.