Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota was hospitalized Wednesday, weeks before his party was to take control of the Senate by a one-vote margin. But by evening, his condition was unclear, with conflicting reports over whether he had suffered a stroke.
The one thing that appeared to be true was that Johnson had some undiagnosed illness that has left him with difficulty speaking and moving. The Washington Post reported that Johnson was undergoing surgery.
Johnson, who turns 60 on Dec. 28, was admitted to George Washington University Hospital, said Julianne Fisher, Johnson's communications director. The illness was initially thought to be a stroke.
Fisher later said, however, that Johnson did not suffer a stroke or heart attack. Other sources, said Johnson had.
In a statement late Wednesday, Fisher said, "Senator Johnson continues to undergo testing and procedures at George Washington University Hospital. We expect to have more information in the morning."
Admiral John Eisold, attending physician of the U.S. Capitol, issued a statement saying Johnson was admitted to the hospital "with the symptoms of a stroke."
While many on Capitol Hill voiced frustration about the lack of immediate information, aides noted the senator promptly received medical attention after feeling ill earlier in the day.
"He has great doctors looking after him," one aide said.
Johnson became disoriented during a conference call with reporters at midday Wednesday, stuttering in response to a question. He appeared to recover, asking if there were any additional questions before ending the call.
Fisher said he walked back to his Capitol office after the call with reporters but appeared to not be feeling well. The Capitol physician was called, and Johnson was taken by ambulance to George Washington University Hospital for evaluation.
A statement released by Johnson's office then said, in part, "At this stage, he is undergoing a comprehensive evaluation by the stroke team. Further details will be forthcoming when more is known."
Filling a vacated Senate seat
Democrats won a 51-49 majority in the November election. South Dakota’s Republican governor, Mike Rounds, would appoint a replacement to serve until the 2008 election should Johnson die or resign.
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.
Under the rules of the Senate, tie votes are settled by the vote of the vice president — currently Republican Dick Cheney — effectively giving control of the Senate to the Republicans.
Previous cases The Senate historian's office cites several examples of a senator being incapacitated for years and remaining in office.
Most recently, Sen. Karl Mundt (coincidentally, also from South Dakota) suffered a stroke in 1969 and was incapacitated, but he refused to step down. He remained in office until January 1973, when his term expired. Mundt was pressured repeatedly to step down during his illness, but he demanded that the governor promise to appoint his wife. The governor refused, and Mundt remained in office.
Another example was Sen. Carter Glass, D-Va. Glass had a heart condition that prevented him from working for most of his last term after his re-election in 1942. Yet Glass refused to resign, and finally died of congestive heart failure in May 1946, in his apartment at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.