WASHINGTON -- One of the natural wonders of the Senate is 98-year-old Strom Thurmond, the senior Republican senator from South Carolina, now in his 47th year of service. He has said he won't seek re-election when his eighth term is over next year, and already other South Carolinians are lining up to succeed him.
He recently was hospitalized for fatigue, after which his Senate office reported that on doctors' advice he had decided to ease up on his ritual as Senate president pro tem of gaveling open each daily session. It was a development noted with some largely unspoken interest by the Democratic side of the aisle.
The reason is obvious. Nobody goes on forever, even a remarkable iron man like Ol' Strom. The Republican Party's continued tenuous hold on control of the Senate depends on his keeping his seat through next year, when Republican Rep. Lindsey Graham, a star of the Clinton impeachment hearings, hopes to win the seat he will then vacate. With the Senate split 50-50 by party, the Republicans retain control only by virtue of Vice President Dick Cheney's role as president of the Senate, with the power to vote to break a tie.
The actuarial tables have long ago been strained by Mr. Thurmond's amazing longevity and grit. His departure from the Senate anytime in the next 22 months would shift control to the Democrats, with the Democratic governor of South Carolina, Jim Hodges, certain to appoint a Democrat to the vacancy.
With 51 Democrats and 49 Republicans in the Senate, the unprecedented agreement on power-sharing between the two parties -- equal representation on Senate committees and other arrangements -- would no longer be operative. The Senate would have to reorganize itself, with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in all probability replacing Republican Trent Lott as majority leader and Democrats taking over committee chairmanships.
Such a development would make an already thorny legislative equation for President Bush even stickier, particularly with many Senate Democrats already mindful, and chagrined, that Mr. Bush acquired the Oval Office only through the graces of the Electoral College and five conservative Supreme Court justices. The less sensitive of colleagues also note that Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, at 79, also is in ill health, though also continuing to serve actively.
A change in party majority in the Senate would not be unprecedented. Over a period of two years in 1953-1954, with the Republicans at the start holding a one-vote edge, no less than nine senators -- four Republicans and five Democrats -- died in office, leading to the party majority switching back and forth over that time.
There was a difference, however. According to Don Ritchie, the assistant Senate historian, there was an agreement between the two party leaders, Republican Robert Taft and Democrat Lyndon Johnson, that the organization of the Senate at the start of the 1953 session would stand regardless of the numbers. Taft died in July 1953, but LBJ decided not to take the position of majority leader when he could have done so.
The main reason, Mr. Ritchie says, is that the Senate at the time was considering censure of its resident bad boy, GOP Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, and LBJ decided it was better to have McCarthy's own party run the show. Also, Johnson's political strategy was to have his Democratic Party be supportive of the immensely popular Republican president of the time, Dwight D. Eisenhower, rather than obstructionist.
This time, however, the atmospherics are different. The Senate Democrats see Mr. Bush's proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut as a severe threat to the budget surpluses generated under the Clinton administration and earmarked to pay down the national debt that soared under Republican President Ronald Reagan. If they find themselves in the numerical majority, they aren't considered likely to let the Republicans continue running the Senate.
Meanwhile, Ol' Strom continues to baffle the actuaries and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, building day by day on his record as the oldest person ever to serve in the Senate.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).