Our first reaction to news of Senator Tim Johnson being in critical condition is to hold him and his family in our prayers. We wish him a speedy recovery.
However, because people have asked, I provide a link to CQ's explanation of what happens in the Senate in different circumstances:
Johnson’s condition immediately raised questions about control of the Senate in the 110th Congress, which convenes Jan. 4. Democrats won a 51-49 edge in the November elections, but the Senate cannot function without the adoption of an organizing resolution.
That resolution is subject to filibuster, and if Republicans refused to adopt it on grounds that Johnson is incapacitated and incompetent to fulfill his duties, the chamber would be at a standstill. At the same time, only Johnson himself — or his family, acting under a power of attorney — could resign his seat, creating a vacancy that South Dakota’s Republican governor would fill. A Republican successor would create a 50-50 tie, giving the GOP operational control as a result of Vice President Dick Cheney’s tie-breaking vote.
If Johnson survives, the Democrats would still be in control by 50-49 until and unless he resigned...
Johnson does not need to be sworn in at the beginning of the 110th Congress because he is in the middle of his term.
Even if Johnson remains unable to attend to his regular Senate duties for a long period, he can still remain in office, according to Senate historian Richard Baker. There is no constitutional provision for the removal of incapacitated senators.
On the contrary, there is ample precedent for senators being absent for long periods due to health issues, including a former senator from South Dakota, who suffered a stroke in 1969. Republican Sen. Karl Earl Mundt (1948-1973) remained technically in office through the final years of his last term because he refused to resign.
In 1964, California Democrat Clair Engle (1959-1964), who had been absent from the Senate for months due to a brain tumor that had paralyzed him, was wheeled into the Senate on a gurney during the roll call vote on the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. Unable to speak, when his name was called, he lifted his arm and pointed to his eye, indicating an “aye” vote. He died in office.
More recently, in 1988, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., took a seven-month leave of absence to recover from brain surgery.
Baker said, given the history and tradition of the Senate, a senator remains a senator “as long as he’s alive and breathing.”
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