Wonky Muse
Wonky Muse

December 14, 2006

Senator Tim Johnson and the Balance of Power

He underwent brain surgery:

Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota was undergoing brain surgery early Thursday at George Washington University Hospital after suffering stroke-like symptoms, two Democratic sources familiar with his condition told CNN.

Johnson, 59, was taken to the hospital Wednesday morning after he appeared to suffer stroke-like symptoms, although a spokeswoman for the senator said subsequent evaluation showed he did not suffer a stroke or a heart attack.

Staffers told CNN Johnson was conscious when he was transported to the hospital.
I hope he comes out of this okay but even if he does, it sounds serious enough that he might need a long time to recuperate.

Given the Democrats' razor thin 51-49 majority in the Senate, speculation as to how this could tip the balance of power is unavoidable.

If Senator Johnson has to resign for health reasons, South Dakota's Republican governor Mike Rounds can appoint his replacement. The replacement, who will certainly be Republican, holds the seat until a special election can be held. According to South Dakota statutes, that special election coincides with the next general election, which is November, 2008.

That means that for most of the 110th Congress, the Senate will be tied 50-50 with Dick Cheney holding the tie breaking vote.

Crap.

However, MSNBC notes this potential twist:

The appointment would last until the next general election — in this case, 2008. Johnson's term expires that year.

The 17th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says state legislatures can give their governors the power to appoint someone else to take over, but only in the case of "vacancies."

What's a vacancy? Clearly death or resignation, but history suggests not much else. Serious illness doesn't count.

The Senate historian's office cites several examples of a senator being incapacitated for years and remaining in office.
There is no way to predict if Tim Johnson would refuse to resign as it obviously depends on how serious his condition is, but with the majority rule of the Senate at stake, this is one possible scenario.

Two other possible scenarios were noted by the Post.

One:

The only time that partisan control of the Senate changed in mid-session, historians say, was in 2001. Republicans began the year controlling the 50-50 chamber with Cheney's tie-breaking vote. But Democrats, mindful of the recent sudden death of Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), were aware they could be a heartbeat away from the majority.

In order to adopt new rules organizing the Senate, the two parties must reach nearly unanimous agreement. Democrats in 2001 blocked the naming of committee chairmen and members, demanding concessions before agreeing to the rules. Among those concessions: Should the numerical advantage change, all committee assignments and chairmanships would be nullified, and a new organization would have to be submitted.

That's what happened, not because of a death but because disgruntled moderate Republican Sen. James M. Jeffords (Vt.) decided to caucus with the Democrats, giving them a 51-49 edge and the powers of the majority. Senate Republican sources said yesterday that their party is likely to press for similar concessions when negotiating the operating rules for the next Congress. But even if Johnson were incapacitated, Democratic aides say, they would resist.
Two:

A different scenario unfolded in 1954, after the deaths and replacements of several senators over two years. Republicans remained the majority party even though Democrats eventually outnumbered them, 48 to 47, with one independent. Democratic leader Lyndon B. Johnson did not challenge the GOP's control, in part, historians said, because the independent, Wayne L. Morse of Oregon, warned that he would caucus with the Republicans if need be. That would have led to a 48-48 chamber, and Vice President Richard M. Nixon would have broken the tie in Republicans' favor.
In short, it's only a matter of whether Republicans will demand concessions and whether Democrats will resist or concede.

Either way, the majority rule of the Senate hangs precariously in the balance, with one member holding that crucial leverage. And the person who holds it?

Joe Lieberman.


posted at 2:53 AM by Wonky Muse

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Wonk (noun): def. A political nerd. Know spelled backwards.

Wonky Muse is the other Filipino American female political blogger. The sane, liberal one.


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