Friday, December 15, 2006

The Ill-Fated Senate Class of 1953-1954

The uncertainty surrounding the political ramifications of the health crisis of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD)-- also that of Sen. Craig Thomas (R-WY)(being treated for leukemia)-- pales in comparison to the woes that befell an earlier Senate class.

(T)he unsettled situation pales when compared with the bizarre 83rd Congress in 1953 and 1954, during which nine of the then-96 senators died, including one who committed suicide, and one resigned.

When the Senate convened on Jan. 3, 1953, the GOP was in charge 48 to 47, plus one former Republican, Sen. Wayne L. Morse-- an independent so independent that he moved his seat to the Senate aisle and would not vote with the Democrats to organize.

By Aug. 3 of that year, when the first session adjourned, three members -- including Majority Leader Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio) -- had died. When the next session began in January 1954, the Democrats had become the majority, 48-47-1, but they did not assume control. At one point during that session, as various members died, the D's even had a two-vote lead, but they never challenged Republican control of the body. The Senate adjourned Aug. 20 back where it had started, with the GOP holding a one-vote majority.

So why didn't the Democrats take over? For one thing, seems the "minority" leader, Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-Tex.), didn't particularly want to. He preferred to have the Republicans deal with Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), according to Senate associate historian Donald A. Ritchie.

It was an ugly time at the Senate. Sen. Lester Hunt (D-Wyo.) committed suicide, shooting himself in his office in the Old Senate Office Building on June 19, 1954. McCarthyites were after Hunt, who strongly opposed McCarthy, and they threatened to reveal that Hunt's son had been arrested the year before, accused of soliciting a male undercover police officer in Lafayette Square. The McCarthyites wanted Hunt to announce he would not run again. He did so, then killed himself.

More important, there was "no way the Democrats could have claimed a majority," Ritchie said, "because the Republicans could have blocked them" with a filibuster, and in the Senate, most everything can be filibustered -- even by the minority.

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