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D.C. watching Strom

Jack Mabley (Chicago Daily Herald) -- It is conceivable that one of these days when the U.S. Senate is taking a vote, one senator will be wheeled in on a gurney to cast his "aye" or "nay."

That senator would be Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican, who is the central figure in a remarkable drama being quietly played out daily in Washington.

There are 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats in the Senate. Thurmond's vote is vital for Republicans to retain control, along with Vice President Cheney's tie-breaking power.

Senate rules require all members to be physically present in the chamber to vote.

Thurmond is 98 and in fragile health. He still attends Senate sessions, shuffling into the chamber clinging to the arm of an aide.

"One simply doesn't see people in his condition outside of hospitals and nursing homes," commented one reporter.

New Republic reporter Michael Crowley observed Thurmond for several sessions. Mainly the senator sits motionless, staring blankly ahead, saying nothing, Crowley reports.

When the vote is called, two aides lean over to tell him the issue and suggest his vote.

"After Thurmond is called, his aides whisper 'Aye,' " Crowley relates. "Silence. Then, with increasing urgency, 'Aye ... Aye.' Finally, Thurmond nods, lifting a thin finger to deliver a warbly, Southern-inflected "Aaahhh....' "

It seems incredible that control of the Senate and of legislation for the next 18 months rests on the frail shoulders of a man who is barely functioning.

It is politically incorrect, and probably socially incorrect, to keep a death watch. But every day in almost every office in the Senate the word is "Did Strom make it today?"

The White House puts down any suggestion it is concerned about Thurmond's health.

However, Bush and Cheney are working hard to get key legislation on taxes and education passed as quickly as possible. They have to be aware that if they lose Thurmond, Democrats will determine the fate of the legislation.

Personal prediction: People reaching 98 have a 50-50 chance of living to 100. Thurmond has such a strong will, he will live a year or two longer. Maybe more.

(c) 2001 Chicago Daily Herald

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