WASHINGTON – With control of the Senate potentially hanging in the balance, Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson showed signs of recovering Thursday from emergency surgery to relieve bleeding in his brain.
Johnson, 59, remained in critical condition. But Adm. John Eisold, the Capitol physician, said the South Dakotan was making an “uncomplicated” recovery and did not appear to require more surgery a day after being rushed from his office to George Washington University Hospital.
As Johnson lay in the critical care unit less than three miles from Capitol Hill, senior lawmakers sought to downplay talk of a possible shift in power in the Senate. Still, Johnson’s health underscored the Democrats’ tenuous hold on the chamber in the two-year congressional session that begins in early January.
If Johnson dies or resigns, South Dakota’s Republican governor has the power to appoint a replacement that could wipe out the 51-49 majority the Democrats won in November’s election.
Because a 50-50 tie would be broken by Vice President Dick Cheney, control of the Senate would revert to Republican hands. Speculation about such a shift coursed through the Capitol after Johnson was taken to the hospital Wednesday afternoon after he became disoriented during a conference call with reporters.
Subsequent testing found internal bleeding in his head linked to a condition known as arteriovenous malformation, a congenital defect that produces a tangle of arteries and veins. In rare cases, the condition can prove fatal.
Emergency surgery Wednesday night relieved the bleeding, according to Eisold.
Because the senator made it through the operation without incident, his odds of survival are high, experts said. However, it is unclear whether or to what extent he might be afflicted with permanent impairment.
Those with arteriovenous malformation in the brain can suffer physical weakness, speech problems or paralysis.
Even if Johnson is permanently incapacitated, history suggests there is little chance he would have to relinquish his seat. The Senate never has forced a member out of office for health reasons, even when senators spent years unable to make it to the floor to cast a vote.
The political consequences if Johnson’s seat were to become vacant fueled a scramble for constant updates on his health and a rush to analyze any arcane Senate rule or South Dakota law that could come into play.
If a Republican took over the seat, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., presumably would become majority leader and the GOP would continue to determine the issues considered by the chamber. Democrats still would control the House, which the party won in November’s vote.
Sen. Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat slated to become majority leader when the next Congress convenes, traveled to the hospital Wednesday night shortly after word surfaced of Johnson’s health problem. Thursday morning, Reid declined to give a prognosis. “Whatever I say about his medical condition would not be enough for you,” he said. He added, “He looked very good.”
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who is the fourth-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said she was confident that Johnson “will work his way out of this.”
Although he’s listed in critical condition, that’s normal for a patient right after brain surgery, she said. Reports from the hospital indicate that Johnson is responding to touch and to the voices of people in the room.
Murray said she talked with Reid on Wednesday night and again on Thursday, and he was much more optimistic by Thursday.