Even if Johnson recuperates fully, aides and advisers said, Democrats will be painfully aware that they remain one fatal illness — or one party switch — away from a Republican claim on their majority, which has stood at 51 to 49 since the Nov. 7 elections. The two parties may clash in particular over an agreement made in 2001 that enabled Democrats to seize the majority after one Republican senator switched parties. Republicans are likely to try to revive the precedent, according to the congressional aides, and Democrats are likely to fight it.
Incoming Minority Leader McConnell will have to obtain the same stand-by rules that Tom Daschle obtained from Trent Lott in January 2001 or suffer a strategic defeat in his first month as leader. Demanding the same rules as 2001 may bring the Senate to a halt before it even convenes, but it will not be obstructionism, and the GOP should begin now to focus the public on its demand for “the same rules as 2001” when the GOP held a narrow majority. Similarly, the Senate leadership has to begin now to focus almost daily attention on Patrick Leahy’s “leadership” of Judiciary, making the demand for up-or-down votes on all nominees and publishing a steady stream of comparison data between Leahy’s tenure over the next two years and Orrin Hatch’s from January, 1999 to Bill Clinton’s exit.
It is very much an information struggle, and the Congressional GOP has been historically very inept and even uninterested in that struggle. But the 2008 campaign has already begun, and the GOP cannot give away weeks like it did in the last cycle.