WASHINGTON — The longest-serving senator, Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, gaveled the U.S. Senate into session Tuesday, cast votes on legislation and party leadership and celebrated his 98th birthday.
Thurmond's continuing service on Capitol Hill at an age when most politicians have long since retired or become part of history underscores the fragile margin of control in the next Senate--which could well be split, 50 to 50, on partisan lines for the first time.
Even though his office reports that Thurmond has been hospitalized three times this year for dehydration and once for lower back pain and a hip problem, he is still performing ceremonial duties as the Senate's president pro tem--presiding over the chamber in the absence of the vice president and signing bills.
"His health is great," said Thurmond press secretary Genevieve Erny. "He understands that, because of his age, people would wonder about his health. He doesn't take offense."
Erny said that Thurmond, who parachuted into Normandy on D-day in 1944 and was first elected to the Senate 10 years later, performs daily calisthenics and rides an exercise bicycle at his home in Alexandria, Va. He was last hospitalized in September for dehydration after fainting at a restaurant.
To Republicans, who would control the next Senate only through Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote if he becomes vice president, Thurmond's ability to serve out the remaining two years of his term is imperative.
Without Thurmond in the Senate, the Democratic governor of South Carolina would be positioned to appoint a Democratic successor--thereby making Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) the majority leader.
If Vice President Al Gore wins the presidency and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) resigns to become vice president, the GOP would control the Senate, 51 to 49, because the Republican governor of Connecticut would fill the vacancy.
79-Year-Old Helms Is 'Fine,' Aide Says
Another Republican from a state with a Democratic governor, Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, was hospitalized for three nights in October with pneumonia. But the 79-year-old senator, who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is also back at work.
Helms, like Thurmond, voted Tuesday for a continuing resolution to keep the government operating and participated in the Republican intraparty leadership elections.
"He's fine," said Helms administrative assistant Jimmy Broughton. Helms has a nerve ailment in his feet that forces him to use a motor-powered sit-down scooter to get around the Capitol. He underwent knee-replacement surgery in 1998 but is otherwise in good condition, Broughton said.
In any Senate, mortality has the potential to affect the balance of power. In fact, a case can be made that the death of Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) in July has pushed the Republicans to the brink of losing control. Coverdell was popular in his state and seemingly in no danger of losing his seat. It subsequently was taken by Democrat Zell Miller.
In addition, the death of Democratic candidate Mel Carnahan altered the dynamics of the hard-fought Missouri Senate race that GOP Sen. John Ashcroft lost on Nov. 7. There is no way of knowing whether Carnahan, if he had lived, would have defeated Ashcroft. But his wife, Jean Carnahan, has now been appointed to fill the vacancy created after her late husband outpolled Ashcroft.
The last time the Senate was so closely divided, deaths played a major role. In the 83rd Congress, from 1953 through 1954, the Senate was organized by Republicans. At the outset, the GOP held a 48-47 majority with one independent senator.
But before the Senate ended, nine senators had died and one had resigned. Republicans maintained control in part through tie-breaking power exercised by Republican Richard Nixon, then the vice president.