Nine months after suffering a devastating brain aneurysm, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) will make his long-anticipated return to the Senate on Wednesday — a move that has involved countless hours of planning but will likely include little fanfare.
That’s not to say Johnson’s comeback will go unnoticed, nor will his colleagues ignore it, as the South Dakota delegation is expected to play host to some events, those close to the Senator say. But in keeping with his reserved and low-key demeanor, Johnson is looking to use Wednesday’s return simply as an opportunity to resume his Senate business and begin casting votes after spending the better part of the year behind closed doors.
“There’s not going to be a huge splash,” said Johnson spokeswoman Julianne Fisher. “He just wants to spend some time behind his desk for a while.”
Fisher said Johnson will gradually build up his Senate schedule as he works to regain his strength and complete his recovery from a brain aneurysm that sidelined him in December. Johnson, who can walk with a cane but largely uses a power chair, continues to lack full mobility on his right side and remains in speech therapy.
“There’s no playbook for a situation like this,” Fisher said. “We’re kind of figuring out what works best as we go along.”
There’s no doubt Senate Democrats are awaiting Johnson’s return, especially as they continue to lead with a narrow 51-49 seat majority. At the same time, however, Johnson has faced little pressure from his Senate colleagues and his leadership to re-emerge too soon.
Jim Manley, spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said late last week that Senators are universally anxious to see their colleague back in the halls of the Senate. But Manley also acknowledged that it is clear that “Sen. Johnson is less interested in making a big deal out of this than looking forward to getting down to work.”
The Senate already has made a series of accommodations to meet Johnson’s needs, including widening the aisles in his Hart Building office and restroom, providing him more convenient hideaway space close to the Senate floor and designating a specific elevator to help ensure Johnson’s speedy commute to cast votes.
That elevator, located on the west side of the Capitol near the Senate floor and Reid’s office, has been unofficially labeled as Johnson’s while Senators are in session and casting votes.
Fisher said Johnson has “been biting at the bit to get back here” and has been delving into his work even in his physical absence from the Senate. She added that Johnson is, among other things, learning to write with his left hand rather than his right and working to tackle the stairs and walk longer distances. Johnson, Fisher said, also is likely to take full advantage of his BlackBerry in lieu of writing messages by hand and will work up to casting more votes and taking on other Senate tasks.
“Initially, we’ll probably let him get back into the groove,” Fisher said.
Johnson holds top positions on the Ethics Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. In the case of the former, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) temporarily took over the gavel for Johnson earlier this year to ensure the committee could continue its work.
Fisher said Johnson ultimately will transition back into the Ethics chairmanship once there’s an appropriate break in business and where it won’t be disruptive to the committee’s ongoing work. Johnson will resume his duties on the Appropriations subcommittee following Senate consideration of the panel’s spending bill this week.
Johnson made his first public appearance on Aug. 28 before supporters in South Dakota and has since held other press interviews leading up to his Washington, D.C., return this week. Those events came after months of speculation about Johnson’s condition and whether he was capable of reclaiming his position as the senior South Dakota Senator.
It also came just as National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) said last month that Republicans couldn’t afford to wait any longer to target Johnson’s seat. At the time, Ensign indicated that the NRSC had started recruiting candidates and is planning an aggressive campaign to try to unseat him in the conservative-leaning state.
Still, Republicans have been somewhat slow to mobilize. So far, state Rep. Joel Dykstra is the leading GOP contender, but national party leaders are hoping to enlist someone stronger. They would like Gov. Mike Rounds to make the race, but Rounds is increasingly seen as unlikely to run unless Johnson’s seat becomes vacant.
Johnson has yet to announce his plans officially, but he is raising money and his staff has repeatedly said he intends to seek a third term. Fisher reiterated those plans late last week but couldn’t give a specific timeline for a formal re-election announcement.
“South Dakotans don’t really want a long election process,” she said. “First things first. Sen. Johnson wanted to get home and get back to work. There’s plenty of time for politics. He expects to run and wants to run.”
Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.