Johnson: South Dakota has unique clout on Capitol Hill

Johnson: South Dakota has unique clout on Capitol Hill Sen. Tim Johnson returned to his hometown Sunday and addressed an audience of nearly 200 people at the Eagle's Club in Vermillion. by David Lias Sen. Tim Johnson put his usual quiet demeanor on hold at times Sunday, as he addressed a crowd of nearly 200 supporters at the Vermillion Eagle's Club.

He instead occasionally played the role of bully pulpit, acting and sounding much more forceful as he talked about subjects important to him and his audience.

It's a role he's been forced to take. Six years ago at this time, while still a member of the U.S. House, Johnson was having a much easier time in his bid for a first term in the U.S. Senate.

He had all but sealed his win over incumbent Larry Pressler by late October 1996.

For the past year, Johnson has been locked in one of the most watched Senate races in the nation. He and his challenger, Rep. John Thune, a Republican, are in a statistical dead heat, according to recent polls.

People arriving at the Eagle's Club were met with signs waved by young Republicans, expressing their view that Johnson may be linked to recent voter registration irregularities discovered in counties near the state's Indian reservations.

The organizers of Sunday's event helped the audience quickly forget about the rancor outside by serving pie and coffee.

"It seems to me it's been a long, long political season," Johnson said, "and what we would like to do is restore a little bit of civility to what this campaign is all about."

He reminded his audience of the unique situation South Dakota enjoys on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

"We have, as some people have described, the most powerful Senate delegation in America," Johnson said. "We have the majority leader of the United States Senate and my seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee simultaneously. That is a one-two punch the likes of which, frankly, South Dakota has never seen before."

That powerful combination in the Senate means more opportunity to accomplish positive things on the federal level for South Dakota, Johnson maintains.

"There are opportunities to deal with South Dakota's needs and our priorities where they have merit," he said. "Last year, we were able to fund some 70 different projects across the state. They were not on the House appropriations bill or the president's bill.

"They were only there because we have this newfound clout from South Dakota," he said.

That clout helped secure funds for rebuilding the USD medical school, and the construction of an additional industrial facility in Vermillion, and a range of other projects across South Dakota.

He noted that his job is in jeopardy because of Thune's strong threat.

"But I feel optimistic about the way things are going, and the support in our home town means a lot to Barbara and me," Johnson said.

Earlier this year, Johnson's campaign organized two bus trips to Canada so South Dakotans could purchase prescription drugs at significantly lower prices than anywhere in the U.S.

"I think the price of prescription drugs is one of the most urgent health care issues we have in America today," he said.

The point of the trips, Johnson said, was to point out how "outrageous it is that the citizens of the wealthiest nation on earth have to cross the border to a foreign nation to get prescription drugs at a reasonable price."

Johnson said the Senate has passed two pieces of legislation that could provide some prescription drug price relief.

He noted, however that the House hasn't taken similar action. "It doesn't look good for this year," Johnson said.

As he began to talk about proposed changes in Medicare that also have stalled in Congress, his demeanor began to change, and he showed signs of frustration.

"You've got the House with a bill that only the pharmaceutical industry loves, and you've got a Senate bill that senior groups support and is the direction that we really need to go in this country.

"Part and parcel of what this election is all about is which side you want to be on, and which side you want your elected officials to be on," Johnson said. "Do you want senators who are going to fight for Medicare coverage and are going to fight the pharmaceutical industry and be on your side? Or do you want someone who is in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry, who is going to take their money, solicit their money, and vote against you? That's what this election is all about."

The entire world has been watching the Johnson/Thune race. As the cameras from a Hong Kong television crew rolled, Johnson emphasized the enormous consequences of the Nov. 5 outcome.

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