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Lawmaker's Illness Could Affect US Senate Control

A U.S. Senate Democrat remains hospitalized after undergoing brain surgery in Washington. With Democrats poised to take control of the Senate with a razor-thin majority next month, Senator Tim Johnson's illness could potentially affect the balance of power. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

A Capitol Hill physician, Admiral John Eisold, says Senator Johnson will not need additional surgery, after undergoing a brain operation early Thursday for bleeding caused by a medical condition related to his blood vessels.

Eisold says Johnson continues to have what he called "an uncomplicated post-operative course," and has been responsive to both words and touch.

Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee visited Johnson in the hospital Thursday, as did incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "We are all praying for a full recovery. We are confident that will be the case," he said.

At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow commented on Johnson's situation. "Everybody is concerned. Our thoughts and prayers are with him, his family, his staff and his colleagues," he said.

The 59-year-old Johnson was taken to a Washington hospital Wednesday, after having difficulty speaking to reporters in a conference call on Capitol Hill.

His illness caught lawmakers' by surprise, and raised questions about control of the Senate if Johnson is unable to serve out the rest of his term.

Democrats are to retake control of the Senate on January 4th, after winning a one-vote majority in November 7th midterm elections. If Johnson resigns or dies, South Dakota's Republican Governor Michael Rounds would name a successor, presumably a Republican, to complete the remaining two years of Johnson's term.

That would leave the Senate evenly divided 50-50, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting tie-breaking votes -- essentially handing control to Republicans.

But Johnson could not be forcibly replaced if he survives and is incapacitated.

Ironically, another Senator from South Dakota, Republican Karl Mundt, suffered a stroke in 1969 while in office. He continued to serve until his term ended in January 1973, although he was not able to attend Senate sessions and vote.

More recently, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, missed three months of votes after undergoing back surgery earlier this year.