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Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., in critical condition

WASHINGTON – Sen. Tim Johnson, the South Dakota Democrat who credited the Indian vote for the whisker-thin margin of victory that kept him in the Senate, was in critical condition the morning of Dec. 14 after suffering a brain hemorrhage the previous afternoon. Overnight, he underwent brain surgery at George Washington University Hospital.

Spokesmen said the senator’s powers of speech faltered during a Dec. 13 conference call with South Dakota reporters, but he appeared to recover and returned to his office. There he had problems with his right arm and his staff called the attending physician of Capitol Hill. Initial indications of “a possible stroke” were in doubt once the senator entered the hospital, and it was still in doubt when surgery ended after midnight.

Subsequent to Johnson’s admission to the hospital, the official Capitol Hill physician announced a diagnosis of congenital arteriovenous malformation – in layman’s terms, misshapen blood vessels had caused bleeding within the brain. At press time, an on-camera brain surgeon was advising CNN viewers that Johnson, while probably “not out of the woods,” was probably stabilizing and would likely face a recovery period of weeks and months rather than hours and days.

Newscasters and political analysts met the news of Johnson’s ordeal with speculation about its impact on Congress. Democrats expected to seat 51 senators next year, compared with 49 Republicans. If Johnson were disabled, Gov. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, a Republican, would name his replacement. A Republican appointee would repeal the Democratic majority because a 50 – 50 Senate would be considered a Republican-majority Senate by virtue of Vice President Dick Cheney, a GOP stalwart. As president of the Senate under the Constitution, the vice president casts a tie-breaking vote.

But across Capitol Hill and certainly in Indian country, where Johnson has been a compassionate advocate of tribal rights and Indian funding since his first term in the House of Representatives, thoughts focused on Johnson himself. His Republican counterpart in the Senate, John Thune, issued a call to prayer, seconded by Rounds and the White House, for all South Dakotans.