Stricken senator returns amid bipartisan cheers

WASHINGTON – Nine months after being stricken by a brain aneurysm, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., returned to the Senate on Wednesday to the applause of his colleagues and the relief of his party.

“It must already be clear to you that my speech is not 100 percent,” Johnson said on the Senate floor, his words and his gait slowed by the life-threatening attack. “But my thoughts are clear, and my mind is sharp, and I’m here to be a voice for South Dakota in the Senate.”

The bipartisan collegiality that marked Johnson’s return was in contrast to the lack of civility that recently has characterized the Senate. The chamber was unusually hushed, and in a rare sight, most senators were in their seats. Ovations were frequent.

Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota who lost to Johnson in 2002 by 524 votes, introduced a resolution honoring him. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., thanked his counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for not exploiting Johnson’s absence – critical with Democrats holding a fragile majority.

In the morning, Johnson, 60, arrived at his office with his wife, Barbara, who is a two-time breast cancer survivor. The doors were held open by his South Dakota congressional colleagues: Thune and Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth.

The back door to his suite now opens by remote control, his desk was lifted so he can stay in his motorized chair and his office bathroom has been refitted. In the Capitol, he now has a second office close to the Senate floor, his desk on the floor was moved toward the front and an elevator was designated for his use to speed him to floor votes.

After a joyful reunion with the staff, Johnson did an interview with South Dakota reporters and met with his chief of staff and legislative assistant.

“Watching him come into the Hart Building again, what an incredible feeling,” said spokeswoman Julianne Fisher, who was at the senator’s side when he became disoriented during a Senate broadcast taping 12 days before Christmas last year. “Last time we left here, we weren’t so sure he would be back. To watch him come back, after working so hard to get back, it’s hard to put into words how cool this is.”

Johnson has yet to announce his plans, though staffers say he intends to make a run for re-election. “Clearly he wants to run,” said Drey Samuelson, his chief of staff.

On Wednesday, Johnson said he will measure his speech and mobility progress and make a decision on running this fall. “I anticipate it will be good, but you never know,” he said.

Republicans are already targeting the race and hope to attract a candidate with the popular appeal of Gov. Michael Rounds.

Political experts say both sides will have a delicate challenge. Republicans will have to be careful to navigate the partisan waters without splashing mud on a heroic figure, while Johnson will have to demonstrate that he has the stamina to do the job.

“The question for Johnson and his hopes for re-election lie in how voters react to him over the next few months,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the independent Cook Political Report. “They will be looking to see that he can handle the rigors of both the Senate and the campaign trail.”

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