As the Democrats prepare to assume power in the Senate next week, they are acutely aware that the lightning that struck when Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont renounced the GOP could strike again at any time and instantly dissolve their new majority.
No fewer than 27 Democratic senators now represent states governed by Republicans--among them Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, whom federal prosecutors are investigating for alleged financial improprieties. If any of the 27 were to leave office or die, a GOP-appointed successor could give Republicans the majority once again.
The mortality of senators is, naturally, a touchy subject. It was delicate before the Jeffords switch, when there was intense focus on the health of 98-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).
But Democrats know the question is relevant when their majority, after Jeffords officially becomes an independent sometime following Tuesday's session, will be a mere 50-49-1.
"We understand that we're just a plane crash or a heart attack away from this happening again," said one Democratic leadership aide.
The last Senate so closely divided offers a cautionary tale.
In January 1953, the Senate began the 83rd Congress with 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats and one independent. A GOP vice president, Richard Nixon, stood ready to break tie votes in his party's favor. Republicans were recognized as the majority party.
But within two years, nine senators had died and one had resigned. Republicans barely kept control of the Senate, throughout that seesaw period, due in part to Nixon's tiebreaking power and in part to the backing of independent Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon.
At one point, Senate Majority Leader William F. Knowland (R-Calif.) openly lamented the troubles he had running the chamber when his party actually stood in a 47-48-1 minority. And Senate Minority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) replied that it was just as hard to act like a minority when the numbers said otherwise.
Knowland himself had come into the leader's post after Senate Majority Leader Robert A. Taft (R-Ohio) died in July 1953, and his seat was taken by a Democrat.
More recently, two deaths played a role in the Democratic ascendance to power. In October, Gov. Mel Carnahan of Missouri, the Democratic challenger to Republican Sen. John Ashcroft, died in a plane crash weeks before what polls showed would be a close election. It was too late to replace Carnahan's name on the ballot, but state Democratic officials announced that his widow would take his seat if he won. He did, apparently in part due to a sympathy vote.
Earlier in the year, Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) died of a stroke and a Democratic governor replaced him with Democrat Zell Miller. Coverdell, 61, had four years left in his term and, had he not died, there would be no Democratic majority in the offing.
In a Senate where the median age is 58, there are 40 senators 61 or older. Seventeen of the 40 are Democrats, and of those, five come from states with Republican governors: Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Carl Levin of Michigan, Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin, Bob Graham of Florida and Harry Reid of Nevada.
On the Republican side, 11 of the 23 senators age 61 or older come from states governed by Democrats--most notably Thurmond, who continues to set a record for longevity in the Senate with every passing day. He was first elected in 1954.