Johnson's Illness Clouds Future of Senate Control Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota was recovering from brain surgery Thursday at George Washington University Hospital. As official Washington extended good wishes for his recovery, it also puzzled over the effect that his illness may have on control of the Senate.
NPR logo Johnson's Illness Clouds Future of Senate Control

Johnson's Illness Clouds Future of Senate Control

Q&A: What Happened to the Senator’s Brain?

Sen. Tim Johnson's (D-SD) emergency surgery was an attempt to fix a condition known as arteriovenous malformation. In the defect, called AVM, arteries end up delivering their fast-flowing blood directly into veins, instead of into tissue. But veins aren't designed to handle the same high pressures as arteries, and the malformation becomes dangerous when the pressure causes a vein to rupture. Read more on AVMs.

What Happens When a Congressman Becomes Incapacitated?


The Senate has never voted to remove a member for a health-related cause, although that did happen once in the House. scroll down for more

Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota was recovering from brain surgery Thursday at George Washington University Hospital.

U.S. Capitol physician Adm. John Eisold visited the senator Thursday afternoon. "He has been appropriately responsive to both word and touch. No further surgical intervention has been required," Eisold told reporters.

The senator's spokeswoman, Julianne Fisher, confirmed in an e-mail exchange with The Associated that Johnson was responding to spoken commands.

As official Washington extends good wishes for Sen. Johnson's recovery, it also puzzles over the effect that his illness may have on the Senate.

Johnson, 59, was in critical condition as of Thursday. He has been diagnosed with a condition called arteriovenous malformation (AVM). Surgeons overnight were able to relieve the pressure on his brain caused by enlarged blood vessels impinging on each other, which can lead to bleeding in the brain. Initial diagnosis indicated that Johnson's case was a serious one, and it would involve months of recovery to overcome what may be partial paralysis and aphasia — the loss of the ability to speak.

Johnson is among the 50 Democrats preparing to take part in the Senate of the 110th Congress. There is one independent, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is expected to organize with the Democrats and give them a majority of 51. If Johnson is not present for the organizational votes, Democrats would still have a majority of 50-49.

But if Johnson were to die or resign, his seat would be vacant. By South Dakota law, a vacancy would be filled by the governor's appointee until the end of Johnson's current term, two years hence. A full-term successor would be elected in November 2008. South Dakota last month re-elected its Republican governor, Mike Rounds, who has been considered the leading candidate to oppose Johnson for this Senate seat in 2008.

Rounds could appoint anyone who is constitutionally qualified to fill the office for the rest of Johnson's term. But he would be expected to appoint a member of his own party, as usually happens when governors have this opportunity.

Rounds' appointee would make the Senate 50-50, in which case Republicans would claim the majority, because the president of the Senate can break tie votes. The Senate president is the Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney, who has broken ties in the chamber on several occasions. During the first six months of 2001, when the Senate was temporarily 50-50, Cheney's tie-breaking vote kept the Republicans in the majority.

The chief advantage of holding the majority is the power to name the chairmen of all the committees of the Senate, where chairmen enjoy substantial agenda-setting power. The majority party also takes the lead in organizing floor debate and supervising floor procedures, although the power of individuals under Senate rules is paramount.

If Johnson survives but is incapacitated, there will be debate over whether he should resign. Actual vacancies occur only when a member either dies or resigns. On many occasions in Senate history, senators have held their seats while unable to vote or participate in Senate business. There is a recent precedent even in South Dakota, where Karl Mundt, a Republican, suffered a stroke in 1969.

Johnson, a longtime voice for farmers, was elected to his second term in the Senate in 2002, prevailing by just 528 votes out of more than 334,000 cast. He had served 10 years in the House before his first election to the Senate in 1996.

What Happens When a Congressman Falls Ill?

The Senate has never voted to remove a member for a health-related cause, although that did happen once in the House (see below). In all the cases cited, control of the Senate or House did not rest on the stricken member's ability to keep his or her seat — as it now does with the sudden illness of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD).

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE). After dropping out of the Democratic presidential race in September 1987, Biden complained of severe headaches. He underwent two surgeries to repair aneurisms in arteries supplying blood to his brain. His recuperation kept him away from the Senate for seven months in 1988.

Rep. John Grotberg (R-IL). In January 1986, Grotberg had a heart seizure and lapsed into a coma. The condition was brought on by participation in an experimental program for his colon cancer. His family and staff refused to consider resignation, and he even won the March GOP primary. Grotberg's family finally announced that he would not run again. But he retained his seat until his death in November 1986.

Rep. Gladys Spellman (D-MD). While campaigning in October 1980, Spellman suffered a massive heart attack. Although she never emerged from a semi-conscious, coma-like state, she easily won re-election. But there was no prospect for recovery. The House voted to declare the seat vacant in February 1981. It is the only time lawmakers took action involving an incapacitated member.

Sen. Karl Mundt (R-SD). After a debilitating 1969 stroke, Mundt never returned to work. But he refused to resign, staying in office until his term expired in January 1973. Republicans pressured Mundt to step down shortly before the 1970 elections, when it appeared the GOP was going to lose South Dakota's governorship — and with it the ability to appoint his Senate successor. There was never talk of a motion to expel, though the Republican Conference eventually stripped Mundt of committee assignments. In November of 1970, South Dakotans elected a Democratic governor, putting an end to the Republican call for Mundt's resignation.

Sen. Clair Engle (D-CA). Democrats pleaded with Engle to resign in the spring of 1964, when he was dying of brain cancer. But Engle refused. In June, when the Senate voted to break the filibuster blocking the civil rights bill, Engle was wheeled onto the floor to vote for cloture by motioning with his hand. He died a month later.

Sen. Carter Glass (D-VA). In the spring of 1943, the 85-year-old Glass stopped coming to work because of his poor health. He kept his seat until his death in May 1946.

Sen. James Grimes (R-IA). An 1869 stroke left Grimes an invalid, according to Sen. Robert Byrd's (D-WV) invaluable book of Senate historical statistics. But Grimes remained in office until his death in February 1872.