Many members of Congress have pulled together to fill the gap left by Sen. Tim Johnson's extended absence. U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., says that bipartisan effort has been impressive. Now Conrad says he's excited Johnson is back at work.
"The first bill he co-sponsored was my disaster relief bill. He e-mailed me to talk about what was in the legislation," says Conrad. "He's back working. He's on intensive therapy. His doctors tell us he's a model patient and he's working hard and he's actually a couple of months ahead of schedule."
Johnson's recovery will still take several months, and it's not clear when he might return to the Capitol to cast a vote. Johnson's spokesperson says in the meantime he's asking for work. Julianne Fisher says the senator is reading memos, answering staff questions and wants to be involved in the details as his staff works on issues important to him.
"We have staff that goes over there several times a week; his chief of staff has met with him. We send over memos," Fisher says. "We don't want to swamp him. His first priority must remain rehabilitation. He's in hours every day of physical, speech and occupational therapy. But, again, Tim's looking for some homework."
Johnson's therapy is designed to increase the strength in his right side. Fisher says his thoughts are clear, he can talk, and now he's working on putting words together more quickly.
Fisher says Johnson made his legislative priorities clear for this session of Congress before he fell ill. Many senators have stepped in.
U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., is giving advice on how to work during Johnson's extended absence. About 10 years ago, Biden suffered from a brain aneurysm and was out of his office for nine months. Other senators are sitting on committees to hold Johnson's place at the table.
Sen. Johnson's staff is relying on everyone in the South Dakota delegation, and that includes Republican Sen. John Thune.
"We continue to advocate the same kinds of things, whether it's funding for Lewis and Clark water projects, the next farm bill which we're going to be working on later this year, drought relief, and I'll be introducing a bill later next week on forest health and making sure the state has the firefighting resources it needs whenever we get hit with a forest fire in the Black Hills," says Thune.
Since Democrats have just a two-vote majority in the U.S. Senate, Johnson's absence is important for any highly partisan vote. So far, that hasn't happened and no one from the Dakota delegation is willing to predict when it will.
“His doctors tell us he's a model patient, and he's working hard and he's actually a couple of months ahead of schedule.”U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
Johnson spokesperson Julianne Fisher says the big issues require 60 votes to pass to prevent a filibuster.
"It's not just that you need Tim Johnson's vote, but you have to have compromise in many ways to get enough people on board to pass something," says Fisher.
The U.S. Senate is focused on legislation right now, but soon it will be election season. Tim Johnson is up for re-election in 2008. Before his illness, he indicated he would run for re-election.
He's not made any official announcement, but there are a several fundraisers this month on his behalf. As of December 31, 2006, Johnson had $629,000 in the bank. Sen. John Thune says eventually the election will matter in South Dakota, but now it really doesn't.
"That time will come. But hopefully in Tim's case there will be a certain amount of patience accorded to him and his recovery, and people won't start to focus on the politics, but focus on the humanity," says Thune. "What really matters is that this is a guy who's been through a lot, as well as his family, and we need to be there to support them."
Johnson's staff says the senator is pleased with the effort others are making on his re-election, but they say he's not ready to make a decision about his future.