Thurmond walking the tightrope


Scrutiny: As the oldest senator navigates his last term, more attention is being paid to his ability to execute the duties of his office - and the political impact of a potentially early departure.

March 08, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the midst of a routine task he's performed hundreds, maybe thousands, of times before, Strom Thurmond recently made a mistake in the order of the ceremonial opening of the Senate. He began the daily proceedings not with the customary prayer but with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Normally, this might be a matter of importance only to the chaplain, who gave the Senate's Republican president pro tem a gentle nudge to get him back on track. At 98, Thurmond has for years been acknowledged to be a shrunken, shuffling shadow of his robust former self.

But a ghoulish preoccupation now attends every act of the nation's oldest and longest-serving senator, who has been hospitalized repeatedly for fatigue and other minor ailments during the past year.

With the Senate split 50-50, the Republicans can claim majority control only because their party holds the White House, and Vice President Dick Cheney, whose own health is another source of concern, is empowered to break ties in their favor.

A loss of just one Republican seat would end a current power-sharing arrangement and shift control of the Senate firmly to the Democrats, who would not likely put President Bush's priorities at the top of their agenda.

If Thurmond is unable to remain in office until the end of next year to complete what he has already said will be his final term, his replacement would be named by South Carolina's Democratic governor, Jim Hodges.

Thus, as South Carolina's Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian puts it: "After 46 years in office, Strom is down to 20 months left, and everybody's focused on whether he's going to make it."

As Thurmond serves his party in perhaps the most vital capacity that he has had in years, his crusade draws attention to how accommodating Congress can be to members who choose to stay long past the point of peak performance.

Staff assistants can carry out almost every necessary function - drafting legislation, answering mail, solving constituent problems, meeting with lawmakers and even receiving visitors at the congressional office.

In Thurmond's case, Chief of Staff Duke Short has been acting on behalf of his boss for many years. In other instances, wives or other family members have quietly stepped in to call the shots for disabled lawmakers.

The only responsibility a legislator can't delegate to a surrogate is his floor vote. Sometimes members of Congress have to come on crutches or in wheelchairs. Once in a great while a legislator shows up on a hospital gurney.

Thurmond is still moving under his own power and so far hasn't missed a vote. But after years of relying on an aide to escort him from his office to the Senate floor, Thurmond now relies on at least two assistants to get him where he needs to go.

Fellow legislators tend to be very sympathetic to failing colleagues. In business, there might be concern about the bottom line. In academia, even tenured professors face periodic reviews. In the health fields, steps are taken to avoid medical mistakes. But Congress can be more like a family making allowances for ailing members.

"It's a club," says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "Lawmakers tend to be very tolerant of each other's foibles in this area as well as others. Reciprocity is very strong, especially in the Senate. They treat each other with respect, if they have been treated with respect."

A key distinction, of course, is that lawmakers are essentially peers who answer only to the voters of their state or district. The voters of South Carolina chose to re-elect Thurmond to an eighth term in 1996 after a campaign waged by his challenger almost exclusively on the issue of Thurmond's age. His colleagues are in no position to overrule that decision.

Legislative leaders will ease their failing colleagues out of power positions, however. Thurmond invoked his seniority to take the helm of the Armed Services committee when Republicans gained the majority in 1995. He stepped aside in favor of Virginia Republican John Warner in 1999, however.

House Democratic leaders had a tougher time a few years earlier persuading then-Rep. Mo Udall, an Arizona Democrat suffering from Parkinson's disease, to give up the chairmanship of the House Interior Committee, where he had made his mark as one of the nation's leading conservationists.

Sometimes the spouses, families or staffs of ailing members resist efforts to dethrone them because of the collateral loss of prestige, perquisites or benefits. In 1985, then-Rep. Les Aspin, a Wisconsin Democrat, had the backing of his party's leaders to stage a successful coup against Rep. Melvin Price, an Illinois Democrat who wouldn't give up chairmanship of the House Armed Services committee despite diminished powers.

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