Sen. Johnson in Critical Condition Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota underwent brain surgery Wednesday night in Washington, D.C. and is in critical condition. He was rushed to the hospital from his Capitol Hill office Wednesday after becoming disoriented.
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Sen. Johnson in Critical Condition

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Sen. Johnson in Critical Condition

Sen. Johnson in Critical Condition

Sen. Johnson in Critical Condition

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Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota underwent brain surgery Wednesday night in Washington, D.C. and is in critical condition. He was rushed to the hospital from his Capitol Hill office Wednesday after becoming disoriented.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Control of the U.S. Senate may be in question this morning all because of the sudden illness of a Democratic senator. Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota underwent surgery last night after falling ill at the Capitol. The nature of the surgery is not known and there is no word yet on his condition, but Senator Johnson's sudden ailment highlights the tenuous hold the Democrats have on power in the upcoming Congress. Should the senator's health fail, his replacement would likely be a Republican, throwing control of the Senate back to the GOP.

Joining us now is NPR's Nina Totenberg. Good morning.

NINA TOTENBERG: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's start first with Senator Johnson's illness. What do we know?

TOTENBERG: Well, he was on the phone talking to reporters yesterday. He was due to be the guest of honor at a luncheon, and he started stuttering and finally just terminated the conversation with the reporters. And then he seemed to recover, but told his staff that he didn't feel well. They called the Capitol doctor who came over and thought maybe he'd had a stroke.

And they got him right away by ambulance to George Washington University Hospital, where he was placed in the ICU and was operated on, we're told - not by the hospital - last night. The hospital isn't commenting, but that's what sources are saying, is that he was operated on last night. We don't know for what. His staff has said he did not have a stroke or a heart attack, so we're a bit in the dark as to what he could have been operated on. I've talked to some medical sources who say it could conceivably have been an aneurism that they went in to clip. We simply don't know much about his condition at this point, and I imagine we will know more later this morning or later today.

MONTAGNE: So all could still go quite well for Senator Tim Johnson. But as this was unfolding yesterday, you were covering a story that seems to highlight the fragility of the Democrats' hold on the Senate. What was going on there?

TOTENBERG: Yeah. I was covering a major policy speech that Senator Patrick Leahy, the incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was making about what direction he will take as chairman of the committee and the kinds of hearings he intends to hold, the kinds of - what he intends to do to hold the administration's feet to the fire on a whole variety of issues. And when we learned about this, well, it just threw all of that in doubt because the state of South Dakota has a Republican governor. And under state law, the Republican governor would appoint a successor if, at some point, Senator Johnson either died or said he was incapacitated to the degree that he could no longer serve, and so he - if he resigned, if I should - if he died or resigned. And that would shift the Senate back to 50-50 and then Vice President Cheney would have the deciding vote that he could cast.

MONTAGNE: Is there a precedent for members of Congress to serve during a severe or prolonged illness? In other words...

TOTENBERG: Oh, yeah, there are - according to the parliamentarian, there have been nine cases and, you know, that go - in recent times have been going back to the 1940s. Ironically, Senator Carl Mundt of South Dakota had a stroke in 1969; never went back to the Senate, but never resigned, and so he served, officially served, until that time. Senator Joseph Biden in the 1980s had an aneurysm and was out for eight months.

Very recently, Senator Strom Thurmond, who served until 2003. And the Senate was very closely divided in 2001 and '02 - 2000-2001, just like this, and it switched parties eventually because Senator Jeffords of Vermont switched parties from Republican to Democrat, giving the Democrats control of the Senate. But Senator Thurmond was desperately needed for that reason, and he was physically walking around but basically not there for anybody who saw him. He had an escort every place he went and it was very clear he didn't recognize people and that kind of thing. So, as one staffer said yesterday, it sort of makes you want to put these guys in a bubble.

MONTAGNE: Nina, thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And we'll obviously be talking about this as we hear more. NPR's Nina Totenberg.

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