Jeffords Switch Likely to Take Thurmond's Health Off Front Pages

Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina -- America's oldest and longest-serving senator -- walked slowly out of the Senate chamber on Thursday, leaning heavily on the arm of an aide.

Upon meeting a gaggle of reporters, he inched away from his guide and waved feebly at the cameras before disappearing into a senators-only elevator. But for perhaps the first time this year, no one whispered about his apparent frailty or what a sudden Thurmond illness would mean for the Senate.

With Sen. James Jeffords' defection from the GOP earlier that day, the careful Washington watch of the health of 98-year-old Thurmond and his Republican compatriots such as 79-year-old Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., will likely now fade along with the presumption that a Democratic takeover of the Senate could only be caused by the illness or death of a GOP senator.

"Now, Thurmond's health will be less of an issue," Clemson University professor Dave Woodard said. "There'll be less controversies, less following him about to see what he does each day."

As late as May 20, newspapers were still talking about the importance of Thurmond's health to President Bush in a 50-50 Senate: "A crucial vote tomorrow on George Bush's tax-cut plans depends on the survival of South Carolina's increasingly fragile Senator Thurmond", one newspaper declared.

And just about every week since the evenly split Senate started to work, some media outlet somewhere profiled Thurmond and his health and quoted unidentified politicians who expressed worry about what a sudden turn in his health would do to Capitol Hill.

But since last Tuesday -- when the rumors about Jeffords' plan to leave the Republican Party started in earnest -- no one's called to inquire about Thurmond's health, spokeswoman Genevieve Erny said Friday. But "the media was certainly more concerned about Senator Thurmond's health than they should have been," she added. "I'm looking forward to being able to focus on more important things."

In his eighth term as senator, Thurmond already has said he will not seek a ninth term in 2002. He will be 100 when his current term ends and has visibly slowed this year -- no longer following his tradition of opening the Senate each morning and usually walking with an aide on each arm to steady him.

But with the Senate split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, the senior senator's vote was crucial both in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which takes the first vote on President Bush's judicial nominations, and on the Senate floor, where Thurmond serves as president pro tem.

Last year, when Republicans held a 54-46 edge over the Democrats, Thurmond made only occasional appearances at Judiciary Committee meetings, but this year he has attended each vote, using a strong "aye" or "no" to make his point.

South Carolina has a Democratic governor, Jim Hodges, who would likely appoint a Democrat if Thurmond could not serve. That would have thrown the Senate to the Democrats.

Ironically, some Republicans see two unexpected deaths having contributed to the Democratic takeover.

First was last year's death of Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., that led to a Democrat, Zell Miller, winning his seat. Then there was the death of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan in a plane crash shortly before November's senatorial election. His widow, Jean, took his place after voters chose the late governor over Republican Sen. John Ashcroft, now the attorney general.

The Democratic takeover will oust Thurmond from his seat as Senate president pro tem, which made him third in line for the presidency behind the vice president and the House speaker.

Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, an 83-year-old, becomes the new Senate president pro tem when the takeover is complete.