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At 50-50, Senate is on a Strom watch

By Gail Russell Chaddock Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2001



WASHINGTON

The senior senator from South Carolina is late for an important committee vote.

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Minutes pass. The whispering begins: Has anyone seen him? Will he come? And the unasked question behind all the others: Is this the moment when control of the Senate will, at last, change hands?

Then he arrives. He smiles at colleagues, touches an arm, pats a back. He may read a speech from notes. When the vote comes, he booms out his "yea" or "nay," before exiting on the arm of an aide.

Some 73 years after his first election to public office, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) is used to questions about his age. But these days, scrutiny of the longest-serving senator's comings and goings has become a daily ritual.

More than idle curiosity, the Strom watch is driven by basic, raw politics. With a 50-50 split in the Senate, the GOP can't afford to lose a single seat. And should Senator Thurmond step down or need to be replaced, the choice of a successor would fall to South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat.

As a result, the White House is driving the president's priorities - first tax cuts and, this week, education - through the Senate as quickly as possible.

"Nothing motivates Washington like the prospect of losing one's power. And what's making a difference now are all those factors at the margin, such as the health of a senator," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior analyst at the Hudson Institute.

Thurmond's staff insists his health has not undermined his ability to carry out his duties. He has yet to miss a floor vote in the 107th Congress, and he shows up in his office every day, whether the Senate is in session or not. Aides say he still works out every morning, as he has for most of a century.

During past campaigns, the senator has flipped into a handstand, slid down a fire pole, and pumped iron to show the camera - and skeptics - that he's fit and up for the job.

'The Grip'

These days, the man once celebrated for a bone-crushing handshake known as the "the Grip" is now better know for "the Hug" - a reference to the warm greeting he offered freshman Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) of New York at her swearing-in. (She asked him to autograph a photo of the hug, which he did: "To Pretty Hillary: Welcome to the Senate.)

Usually, Senate traditions give members a measure of respect and personal dignity that's hard to find elsewhere in public life.

In the past, ailing senators have failed to show up for months, even years, at a time. (A Virginia senator in the 1940s missed the last four years of his term, during which time he held the post of president pro tempore and chairman of the Appropriations Committee. A New York senator missed every session in the 80th and 81st congresses.)

Under ordinary circumstances, just being there is enough to buy a little distance from the press. But these are not ordinary times.

"It's unfortunate that the media continue to portray him as in failing health, especially because the only reason the media is interested is a 50-50 split, and the repercussions that could have," says spokeswoman Genevieve Erny.

Thurmond has already broken all records for service in the US Senate - 45 years, eight months, and counting. He is the only senator ever to have been elected on a write-in vote.

As president pro tempore of the Senate, Thurmond is also third in line for the presidency, after the vice president and Speaker of the House.