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Democratic Senator Johnson in Critical Condition

December 14, 2006 at 3:05 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For most of today, reporters and photographers waited outside George Washington University Hospital for an update on the condition of Senator Johnson; it never came.

All that’s known is that the 59-year-old lawmaker yesterday suffered a type of brain hemorrhage, that he underwent surgery, and is listed in critical but stable condition.

Incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid spent many hours with Johnson at the hospital yesterday and visited him again this morning. Upon his return, reporters at the Capitol asked Reid if his fellow Democratic senator was alert or conscious.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Minority Leader: Whatever I say about his medical condition would not be enough for you, so I’m not going to talk about his medical condition. I saw him; he looked great. To me, he looked very good.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. Capitol physician, Admiral John Eisold, issued a statement saying Johnson had been suffering from excessive bleeding within the brain, caused by a congenital condition known as arteriovenous malformation, or AVM.

AVM occurs when the brain’s blood vessels grow tangled together and, in some cases, like Johnson’s, they can burst. The condition is quite rare, occurring in less than 1 percent of the population.

Outcomes in the case of hemorrhage vary. A small percentage of patients die; others suffer from long-term neurological damage; and others recover completely. Admiral Eisold said Johnson was “recovering without complication,” but it was “premature to assess any long-term prognosis.”

That didn’t stop political speculation today about the impact on the balance of power in the Senate if Johnson were unable to continue in office. Senate Democrats currently expect to have a 51-49 majority when the new Congress convenes on January 4th.

But if Johnson’s seat became vacant, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds — a Republican — could appoint a Republican to replace Johnson for the remaining two years of his term. That would shift the Senate balance to 50-50. This morning, Majority Leader Reid refused to speculate on that possibility.

SEN. HARRY REID: There isn’t a thing that’s changed. The Republicans selected their committees yesterday; we’ve completed ours. I have a very busy schedule today, going ahead and getting ready for the next year.

Ability to serve as senator

Julian Zelizer
Boston University
It's a gray area in senatorial politics. Senators can only have their seats vacated if they're forced to resign, if they pass away, if they are expelled.

MARGARET WARNER: Tim Johnson has served 10 years in the Senate.

The Capitol physician's second statement, that Johnson has been responding today and, quote, "no further surgical intervention has been required thus far," came very late this afternoon from Johnson's office.

For a look now at what history and precedent tell us about the potential political implications of Senator Johnson's illness, we're joined by Julian Zelizer, professor of history at Boston University.

And, Professor, welcome. Let's start by saying that Senator Johnson is very popular on both sides of the aisle. And everyone is, of course, praying for his recovery. But under what circumstances could a situation like this lead to a change in control of the Senate?

JULIAN ZELIZER, Boston University: Well, this is a situation where the personal struggles of one legislator can have huge political ramifications. And if the senator would pass away, if this took a bad turn, he would be replaced likely by a Republican. That's really the scenario under which there could be such a huge political implication.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the reporters today with Majority Leader Reid pressed him over and over about, are you confident he can continue to serve as a senator? In fact, who determines whether a senator can continue to serve?

JULIAN ZELIZER: Well, the senator does, in many ways. It's a gray area in senatorial politics. Senators can only have their seats vacated if they're forced to resign, if they pass away, if they are expelled.

And in this case, when someone is incapacitated -- we've seen this in history -- they can actually continue to hold onto their office, even if they physically can't be in the Senate and if they can't participate. So it's a time when a senator who has this kind of challenge can actually retain his seat.

Keeping his seat in Senate

Julian Zelizer
Boston University
And the case that many people have been talking about is Senator Karl Mundt, the Republican from South Dakota who, in 1969, suffered from a stroke and retained his office through 1972. And he was not functioning at that time.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, even if he couldn't be there to vote, the Democrats would still have the 51-49 official majority and a 50-49 essentially practical majority.

JULIAN ZELIZER: Exactly. And the case that many people have been talking about is Senator Karl Mundt, the Republican from South Dakota who, in 1969, suffered from a stroke and retained his office through 1972. And he was not functioning at that time. Obviously, in that case, it became very severe, and we're hoping that does not happen, but he did retain his seat and he refused to resign.

MARGARET WARNER: And there are other cases, more recent ones, where even senators -- one senator sitting in the Senate now was incapacitated for some time and yet kept his seat.

JULIAN ZELIZER: Yes, we have several senators who are actually in office right now -- Senator Biden had some time when he was out of office, and that wasn't that many months, but it was long enough where, you know, there could be questions about: Was he capable of continuing to serve?

And he has. And he's come back, and he's been a very important figure. And we actually have several figures who have gone through this. But Senator Biden, sitting there, is one example that we should think about.

Political precedents on resignation

Julian Zelizer
Boston University
The governors, since the direct election of senators, the governors in almost every state have gained the power to decide who replaces the senator whose seat has been vacated.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, just you mentioned, well, if a senator were forced to resign, but is there any precedent in which a senator, incapacitated or diminished, has, in fact, been forced by anyone to resign?

JULIAN ZELIZER: No. There's been pressure on such senators to resign, but the senators have not done this. They don't actually have the capacity. Parties have put pressure.

Karl Mundt in the 1969-'72 period was under pressure from Republicans to resign, because they were scared this would damage the party. But, again, he refused.

Clair Engle, a senator from California who was struggling with brain cancer in 1963 and '64, there were many Democrats who wanted him to resign. Ironically, he became the deciding vote on ending the filibuster that allowed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to pass. Engle literally was rolled into the chamber and pointed to his eye to signal that he was in favor of ending the filibuster.

So there's often pressure, but there's no real way in this kind of situation to force that to happen at the state or senatorial level.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, everyone is assuming, if something untoward were to happen, that the governor of Tim Johnson's state would, in fact, appoint a Republican, because he's a Republican. Is that uniform across the country? Or are there restrictions on some governors as to what they can do? Who determines that?

JULIAN ZELIZER: The governors, since the direct election of senators, the governors in almost every state have gained the power to decide who replaces the senator whose seat has been vacated. And, in most cases, I believe there are no real restrictions, as we see right now in this case.

So the senator has some leeway to appoint someone from a different party, which has happened, again, in the past. And that's a case where it's a little tricky, in that the politics of a personal struggle is difficult, because the senator -- the governor, in effect, could change the electoral will of the nation by changing the balance of power in the Senate.

Majority control of Senate

Julian Zelizer
Boston University
We saw a different case in 2001, with Senator Jeffords switching sides. And here you had an actual shift in power toward the Democrats, which allowed them temporary control of the institution.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what does history tell us about what happens, if the numerical balance shifts? Does it always mean that control then, official control shifts or not?

JULIAN ZELIZER: No. We could see -- I mean, if we have some situation where there's essentially a split and the vice president could be the defining vote, it really depends how the parties handle it. In 1953 and '54, the Democrats effectively gained control of the Senate because of the deaths of nine senators and the resignation of another, but Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats remained a minority.

And they did not try to assert the power of the majority, because there was one independent, Wayne Morse, who threatened if Johnson, that if they did that, he would vote with the Republicans. So you could have a situation where everything stays the same, even if the numbers shift.

We saw a different case in 2001, with Senator Jeffords switching sides. And here you had an actual shift in power toward the Democrats, which allowed them temporary control of the institution.

MARGARET WARNER: But that had been anticipated in a special deal made in advance, had it not, between Senator Daschle and Senator Lott, that if the numerical balance changed, that the rules would be renegotiated?

JULIAN ZELIZER: Exactly. You had a deal made after the 2000 election, and again, in that case, we weren't talking about a death as much as an independent switching parties or an illness. So there was a much different situation now than if for, in the worst-case scenario, the senator was no longer going to serve as the result of an illness, I think the politics would be very different.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Julian Zelizer of Boston University, thank you.

JULIAN ZELIZER: Thanks for having me.