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First Glance

From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Denizens of the political world are getting whiplash as, after five weeks of adjusting to the concept of Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the sudden, serious illness of a Senate Democrat raises the prospect that the expected 51-49 chamber in the 110th Congress could instead be 50-50, with Vice President Cheney in position to break a tie vote for Republicans.  Along with everyone else in Washington, our hearts go out to Sen. Tim Johnson and his family; at the same time, our minds can't help but turn to the ramifications should Johnson become unable to serve. 

Under South Dakota law, in the event of a vacancy, Republican Gov. Mike Rounds would appoint a replacement for Johnson to serve until the next general election, which in this case happens to coincide with the end of Johnson's second term in 2008.  Rounds would not be legally or otherwise obliged to appoint a Democrat.  Neither state law nor the Constitution provides a course of action in the event of a serious illness, and there is precedent for incapacitated members of the Senate to remain in office.  Johnson, who suffered from symptoms of a stroke yesterday, underwent surgery at a Washington hospital last night.  At this writing, his condition is critical. 

Tops among what's at stake in the event of a vacancy: Bush's status as an utter lame duck in the face of a Democrat-run -- rather than split -- Congress, and Democrats' ability to pass much more than their "six for '06" legislative agenda, most of which would probably still be approved by a narrowly GOP-run Senate. 

Republican instead of Democratic committee chairs in the chamber would not only affect the landscape for the 2008 presidential race (no Foreign Relations Committee chair Joe Biden, for example), but Sen. John McCain at the helm of the Armed Services Committee could affect policy on the Iraq war, since McCain is the most prominent advocate of sending more US troops to Iraq.  Democratic Senate hearings on the conduct of the war could be reduced to informal sessions held for show, as they were earlier this year.  Just yesterday, Sen. Pat Leahy, who's slated to chair the Judiciary Committee, said in a speech that he plans to subpoena Bush officials who resist requests for documents, try to change detainee policy, and curb the NSA warrantless wiretapping program.

Such a shift also could hand more influence to "independent Democratic" Sen. Joe Lieberman, who supports the war and is sometimes at odds with the party line on other issues, even as it means that Cheney's vote and not Lieberman's would become the most important vote in the Senate.

A 50-50 Senate would also revive the question of whether the two caucuses will agree to share power per the agreement struck by leaders Trent Lott (R) and Tom Daschle (D) after the 2000 election, the last time the Senate was 50-50.  Under that agreement, which was unprecedented at the time, both parties had an equal number of seats on the key committees that draft bills and handle presidential nominees.  Before the midterm elections, when a 50-50 Senate in the 110th Congress was a real possibility, it wasn't clear whether Democratic Leader Harry Reid and expected GOP Leader Mitch McConnell would reach a similar agreement.  Democrats would have some procedural leverage on their side: The Senate can't get down to business (committee meetings, etc.) until it's "organized," which requires 60 votes.

Much more on this story below.

It so happens that the final edition of First Read for 2006 coincides with the conclusion of the midterm elections and our year-end NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.  One last House Republican has lost his seat in a runoff.  President Bush has hit new depths in his approval ratings and in public support for his approach toward Iraq.  The poll also hints at potential problems down the road for the conventionally accepted frontrunners for the party's presidential nomination.

Our pollsters advise that such poor numbers are true to form for a survey taken in the aftermath of a bloody, one-sided election, as this one proved to be for Republicans.  "People kind of 'punish' a political party," says pollster Bill McInturff (R).  The question is, "when do they feel like they've kind of been punished enough and it's time to move on...  This is an electorate that's still very grouchy and not yet sated."  Peter Hart (D) called it a "classic" pattern when the "losing party and the incumbent continue to decline and the winning party surges."

As we wrote yesterday, GOP Rep. Henry Bonilla's loss on Tuesday, after failing to grow his vote from the 49% he received on election day to the 50% plus one he needed to win a two-way runoff, no doubt was due in part to local dynamics.  But the poll suggests that public discontent over the war in Iraq remains a nationalizing force that contributed to Bonilla's loss and is causing Bush's worst-ever job approval rating in our survey (34%) and worst-ever job approval ratings on handling foreign policy (30%) and on handling the war (23%, down 11 points since late October).  And while the Democratic party's standing has gradually risen over the past several months, the GOP's remains mired near their record low in the poll.

Bush has adjusted his personnel but not his policy on the war, despite the message sent by voters on November 7.  He said yesterday that the situation is too serious for him to rush to make decisions.  While he's engaging in a series of consultations, he is clearly resisting the bipartisan recommendations that have been the most hyped of any of the options he is being given.  Although the poll shows that much of the public isn't too familiar with the Iraq Study Group's plan, it also shows a plurality of 41% saying that Bush "has gotten the message from the elections but is not making the necessary adjustments."  Another 18% say he has not gotten the message from the elections; 24% say he has gotten the message and is making the adjustments. 

Discontent with the war is now so strong that when asked if the United States has an obligation to US troops who were killed or wounded in Iraq to remain there until the mission is completed, 53% say no.  "Which means that Americans are not going to respond to waving the bloody shirt," says Hart.  Bush will have a very difficult time changing public opinion "because there's a hurricane force wind in his face and against his policy."

Laura Bush told MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell this morning in reaction to the poll, "I understand why those polls are like that because of the coverage that we see every single day in Iraq and it is not encouraging coverage, for sure."  She added later, "I'd like to see the media get a little bit more balanced view of it."