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Johnson's absence threatens Iraq measures

When Senate Democrats move next month to narrow President Bush's authority to wage war in Iraq, at least one of their own won't be there to help. The same goes for trying to pass a spending bill for the war or a budget for the government.
Tim Johnson
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., has not been back to the Senate since Dec. 14, 2006, recovering from late-night brain surgery that followed hospitalization for stroke-like symptoms.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Senate Democrats move next month to narrow President Bush's authority to wage war in Iraq, at least one of their own won't be there to help. The same goes for trying to pass a spending bill for the war or a budget for the government.

Such is life for a razor-thin majority two months after Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., suffered a brain hemorrhage that has left him physically weakened, relearning how to speak and unable to report to work - even when big votes hang in the balance.

Democrats haven't needed Johnson's vote yet, but they're rapidly approaching the point where not having it in their pocket could spell defeat in the notoriously freewheeling Senate.

"I worry about his vote on the budget. I worry about his vote on the supplemental (war spending bill). I worry about all those things," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. Conrad said he has been tracking Johnson's recovery through the South Dakotan's staff, but he has refrained from visiting at the suggestion of the senator's family.

Senator's rehabilitation
Johnson left a Washington hospital last week to enter a private rehabilitation facility. Sedated for weeks after his Dec. 13 attack, he is now described by aides as alert and able to talk, but he is still experiencing considerable weakness on his right side.

His staff won't say where he is, or how long it will be until he's in a condition to report to the Senate, but his recuperation - which includes four hours a day of physical and speech therapy - is expected to take months.

Democratic leaders - intensely protective of Johnson and unwilling to vent their concerns publicly - are resigned to the situation.

"It's not like we're going to be shying away from tough debates. We're just going to have to work that much harder to get the votes together," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has kept in close contact with Johnson's family throughout the medical ordeal.

The Democratic 'majority'
Including two independents who are considered part of their caucus, Democrats enjoy a tiny 51-49 majority over Republicans in the Senate. But under the 100-member chamber's rules, it requires 60 votes to pass most contested measures. Since a simple party-line, majority vote is usually insufficient to prevail, Johnson's absence alone rarely would be enough to cost Democrats a pivotal victory.

Still, with Democrats eager to use their first few months in power to demonstrate an ability to govern and repair Congress' tarnished image, every vote counts.

Their challenge is even more acute when it comes to Iraq, where Democrats are at a disadvantage because independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut routinely sides with Republicans.

"We start out one down on this stuff. On Iraq, we start out two down with Lieberman. It's just the reality," Manley said.

Democrats haven't yet gotten close enough to a tie on matters requiring only a bare majority or to the 60-vote threshold on other matters to make Johnson's absence a deciding factor. It could become one as early this week, though, with Senate fights looming over nationwide driver's licenses and whether airport screeners should have a union. The issues are part of a measure enacting the homeland security recommendations of the bipartisan 9/11 commission.

Decision 2008
As Democrats strategize on how to keep their majority in 2008, Johnson's illness also leaves them with a question mark hanging over a key seat in a Republican-leaning state. He faces re-election next year.

Reid and other senior Democratic senators have stepped in to raise money for Johnson, and members of his inner circle say he intends to run. But it's not clear he will be able to do so - or when Democrats will be certain of his plans.

Johnson's illness comes at a particularly inopportune time in the Senate, where as many as four Democrats are running for president, making Reid's job of corralling Democrats to cast key votes even more difficult.

Johnson has been hospitalized since he was stricken in during a December telephone call with reporters. He was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation, a condition that causes arteries and veins to grow abnormally large, become tangled and sometimes burst.

In his absence, Johnson's aides are trying to keep him in the Senate mix by forwarding him memos about key issues and continuing negotiations on measures he pursued before he fell ill. Earlier this month, Johnson was added as a co-sponsor of a disaster relief measure, a vital issue to South Dakotans. His name was added to five more bills on Tuesday.

Those moves illustrate the extent to which unelected Capitol Hill aides are empowered to act on their bosses' behalf on all but the most formal of institutional duties: casting a vote.

"He's not here to vote, but we are running things by him," said Drey Samuelson, Johnson's chief of staff.