Senators reluctant to oust one of their own

Under chamber's tradition, Johnson could keep his seat even if he never recovers

December 15, 2006|By Janet Hook | Janet Hook,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Carter Glass was the dean of the U.S. Senate and chairman of the Appropriations Committee when he became incapacitated with heart trouble in the 1940s. The feeble octogenarian was absent from the Capitol for four years, unable to answer a roll call on the Senate floor, cut off from all visitors by his wife.

Newspapers began to clamor for his resignation, but the Virginia Democrat refused. His Senate colleagues allowed Glass to keep his seat, and even his powerful chairmanship.

That was more than a half-century ago, but it illustrates an enduring tradition in the world's most exclusive club: Never has the Senate forced a member out of office for being physically or mentally incapable of serving.

That hands-off protocol could be a big boon to Democrats today, as they ponder the possibility that Sen. Tim Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat, could be incapacitated for months or longer after emergency surgery to treat bleeding in his brain.

He remained in critical condition but was described as recovering and holding his wife's hand yesterday. Johnson was rushed to George Washington University Hospital at midday Wednesday after becoming disoriented and stammering during a conference call with reporters.

"He has been appropriately responsive to both word and touch. No further surgical intervention has been required," said Adm. John Eisold, the U.S. Capitol physician.

If Johnson dies or leaves office before Congress convenes next month, it could erase Democrats' fragile 51-49 majority and return control of the Senate to the GOP.

But if he survives and history is any guide, the only force that will drive Johnson from office before his term expires in 2008 is a decision by the senator or his family. The Senate - not state governors or voters - has the constitutional power to force a member out, but it has been loath to use it.

"No one in the Senate wants to have that kind of responsibility for judging whether another member is capable or not," said Don Ritchie, associate Senate historian. "The Senate is a family, as well as a club. There's a real sense of sticking together."

There have been a couple of examples of House seats being declared vacant because of inability to serve, but they involved cases in which lawmakers were elected while incapacitated and were unable to take their seats. Most recently, Gladys Noon Spellman, a longtime House member from Maryland, suffered a heart attack and went into a coma shortly before Election Day in 1980, but her name remained on the ballot and she was re-elected. Because she was still in a coma when the new Congress convened, she was unable to be sworn in, and her family eventually asked that her seat be declared vacant.

Aging and infirm politicians are able to linger in the halls of Congress in part because they are surrounded by armies of aides who can obscure a distressing reality.

Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican who turned 100 while still in office, was so frail at the end of his career that he could hardly walk onto the Senate floor without gripping the arms of staff members.

"They made sure he showed up to vote, and that's what counted," said Ritchie.

But history is replete with examples of other infirm lawmakers who could not even show up to vote, talk or maintain consciousness - and yet were allowed to keep their seats.

In the mid-19th century, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was absent from the Senate for more than three years after being beaten with a cane on the Senate floor by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina in a dispute over slavery. Despite Sumner's incapacity, the Massachusetts legislature re-elected him.

In 1964, a California Democrat voted in the Senate even when he could not speak. Clair Engle, partially paralyzed by repeated operations for brain cancer, was carried onto the Senate floor to cast a key vote on the Civil Rights Act. Voiceless, he pointed to his eye to signify an "aye" vote.

A previous occupant of Johnson's South Dakota Senate seat, Karl E. Mundt, suffered a debilitating stroke in 1969 and was in a coma for a long period of time. He refused to resign, even under pressure from fellow Republicans who feared the GOP would lose the governorship in 1970, and remained formally in his seat until his term expired in 1973.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, was away from the Senate for seven months in 1988 for brain surgery. While recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he shared a suite for three months with another incapacitated senator, John C. Stennis, a Mississippi Democrat who continued as chairman of the Appropriations Committee even after the loss of a leg to cancer slowed him considerably.

When Stennis' predecessor as Appropriations chairman, Glass, refused to quit, Virginia newspapers were nearly unanimous in calling for his retirement. The Staunton News Leader led the call with a 1945 editorial: "It is plainly the duty of Mrs. Carter Glass to make it clear to her husband that his age and physical condition disbar him from further duty in the Senate and to prevail on him to tender his resignation."

But Glass hung on, even though he was away from the Senate from June 1942 until his death in May 1946. It probably helped that he remained nominally in charge of the committee that holds Congress' purse strings.

"He was a powerful, influential senator," said Ritchie, "and no one wanted to remove him."

Janet Hook writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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