The illness of Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., highlights the fragile hold Democrats have on power in the Senate, raising the prospect that several of their most cherished goals could be out of reach barely a month after party leaders thought they were within grasp.
Johnson was in critical condition at George Washington University Hospital in the capital Thursday after he underwent successful surgery to relieve bleeding on the brain caused by a congenital malformation, doctors said.
Washington figures were careful to stress publicly that they were concerned only with Johnson’s well-being, but behind the scenes, intense discussions were under way about what would happen if Johnson were unable to remain in the Senate.
Johnson could stay in office as long as he remains alive, even if he were incapacitated. But if he were to die or to resign, South Dakota state law gives Gov. Michael Rounds, a Republican, the authority to appoint a replacement for the rest of Johnson’s term, which ends in January 2009.
S.D. governor would be kingmaker
With the Senate divided 51-49 in favor of the Democrats, Rounds could tip the balance of power in his party’s favor by appointing a Republican. In a Senate tied 50-50, the vice president — in this case, Republican Dick Cheney — would have the deciding vote.
That would mean a complete reversal of Democratic plans to take power. Instead of Harry Reid of Nevada, Mitch McConnell, a conservative from Kentucky known for his effective partisan infighting, would become majority leader, and Republicans would remain chairmen of all committees. Such a scenario could effectively quash Democratic hopes of taking on the Bush administration on a variety of fronts.
Most broadly, a Republican Senate could insulate President Bush from any number of potentially embarrassing dilemmas. By defeating liberal-tinged measures sent up by the newly Democratic House, or by watering them down in committees, they could protect Bush from the prospect of vetoing Democratic reform bills to boost oversight of the Pentagon and government spending that are popular with many voters.
For Senate Democrats, the disappointment would be keenly felt on nearly a half-dozen major issues. Most notable is the war in Iraq, over which the new Democratic chairmen of at least three major committees have promised hearings.
But Senate Democrats were also looking forward to preserving the Supreme Court from tilting to a conservative majority, overturning what they see as unacceptable encroachments on civil liberties and criminal proceedings, and overhauling regulations on Pentagon spending, consumer affairs, banking and the environment.
Pullback on Iraq advocacy
The winds of Iraq would shift strongly in the Select Committee on Intelligence, where Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., is in line to become chairman.
Rockefeller has promised a series of investigations into the White House’s claims that Iraq sought uranium from Niger, a major piece of the administration’s case for war. He has also said he intends to take on the administration’s program of secret, warrantless surveillance of terrorism suspects and CIA interrogation techniques that critics characterize as abusive.
If the Republicans remain in power, Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., would lead the panel. In sharp contrast with Rockefeller, Bond was among Bush’s most forceful defenders in the Senate, backing the surveillance program and joining only eight other senators in voting against a measure to ban the use of torture by U.S. interrogators overseas.
In the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., who would take over as chairman, has already scheduled a series of hearings into the war modeled on the hearings conducted by Sen. J. William Fulbright, D-Ark., during the Vietnam War.
Biden, who is gearing up to run for president in 2008, has clashed repeatedly with the Bush administration over its handling of the war, especially over its reluctance to turn over documents requested by the committee’s Democratic minority. He is also a strong supporter of the United Nations, putting him sharply at odds with the administration’s national security team.
Under the Republicans, Richard Lugar of Indiana would continue to lead the committee. Lugar is a widely admired moderate who has worked well with Biden in the past, but he is also a party loyalist and has consistently bowed to the wishes of the conservative majority on the current panel. In this scenario, the best Democrats could hope for would be preservation of a frustrating status quo.
Democrats would likely do best under the Republicans in the Armed Services Committee, where John McCain, R-Ariz., as the new ranking Republican, would become chairman. As early as 2004, McCain was agreeing with top Democrats that planning for the war was inadequate, and the Armed Services chairmanship would give his contrariness an even higher profile as he pursues the White House.
However, McCain is unlikely to push nearly as hard as would Carl Levin, D-Mich., who will become chairman under the current lineup. Levin has called for steps to withdraw U.S. troops and has said he would seek to issue subpoenas for documents to review the war. Levin has also said the Pentagon has mismanaged the war financially as well as militarily, and he has promised to strongly ramp up oversight of Pentagon spending.
Domestic flashpoints of conflict
Beyond Iraq, aggressive Democratic campaigns on a variety of domestic issues could also be stalled if Johnson must leave the Senate.
Bush is just one appointment away from tilting the Supreme Court to a conservative majority, but Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is in line to lead the Judiciary Committee, has been a strongly liberal voice on judicial appointments. In a previous term as chairman, in 2001 and 2002, Leahy blocked the appointments of John Roberts, now the chief justice, and 11 other nominees to federal appeals courts.
Under the Republicans, the gavel would stay in the hands of Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a moderate Republican whose bipartisan tendencies and complaints about executive overreaching have frequently been overrun by the panel's conservative majority.
Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who is in line to head the Banking Committee, has promised to shift the focus of regulation to consumer and investor protection. He has said he wants to assert committee oversight of investment funds, examine whether to roll back limits on the rights of individuals to sue companies and their boards, and impose new controls on Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which control half of the nation's residential mortgage market.
By contrast, Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who would remain chairman under Republican control, has promoted and passed legislation to repeal business regulations he considers burdensome.
But the sharpest shift of all would come on the Environment and Public Works Committee, where regulation of environmental programs would see a 180-degree turnabout with liberal Democrat Barbara Boxer of California in line to be chairwoman.
Boxer, who plans quick hearings on global warming and regulation of toxic materials, would succeed Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, an ornery contrarian closely allied with energy interests who has called global warming a hoax created by Hollywood and the news media.
Inhofe would remain chairman under the Republicans — assuming he can survive challenges from fellow Republicans exasperated by the unwelcome publicity he often draws. At least two members of his own party are campaigning to supplant him as senior Republican on the committee.
NBC’s Tim Russert and Chip Reid, MSNBC-TV’s David Shuster and NBC affiliate KDLT-TV contributed to this report.