December 19, 2006

The first impulse upon learning of another's sudden ailment or injury is generally sympathy for the individual. But when the fallen is a pivotal figure like South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, a calculation of the possible consequences quickly follows.

Regardless of whether Mr. Johnson recovers from the brain condition that required emergency surgery last week, one message of his sudden disability is clear: Life is so fragile, even for an apparently healthy 59-year-old man, that nothing can be taken for granted.

That warning goes double for the new Democratic majority in the Senate, which - counting Mr. Johnson - boasts only a margin of one vote. Democrats can only make effective use of their narrow hold on Senate power by joining with enough Republicans to secure the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster and assure passage.

While this cold splash of reality saps some of the giddiness from the Democratic takeover, the timing may be opportune. With their agenda for the next two years still taking shape, Democrats have plenty of time to put the emphasis on building working coalitions on such key issues as health care, energy and immigration reform.

Winning votes aside, holding even the slimmest of partisan margins in the Senate is a huge advantage. It means the Democrats' agenda now dominates. They control the committees, deciding what legislation to consider, what hearings to hold. They control the Senate floor, deciding how time there will be used. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland's new Democratic senator-elect, said he was so thrilled to become part of even a one-vote majority, he couldn't stop smiling.

Senator Johnson's health - or that of any Democrat from a state with a Republican governor - could drastically alter the situation. A replacement would likely join the ranks of the GOP, creating a 50-50 balance with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking the tie in favor of Republicans.

That would be a tragic turn of events for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that Senate Democrats along with their House colleagues represent, if not a huge mandate, at least a palpable desire for change.

This mix of voter hopes and expectations is also fragile. Lawmakers in both parties would be wise to respect it.

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