Luján stroke jolts 50-50 Senate
News of Sen. Ben Ray Luján’s (D-N.M.) stroke sent shockwaves through the Senate on Tuesday, underscoring the fragility of Democrats’ 50-50 majority.
Democrats are in the majority because they have 50 seats and the ability for Vice President Harris to break a tie. Luján’s absence leaves them at 49 seats until he returns, with his office saying he’s expected to make a full recovery.
“It’s just a reminder that in a 50-50 Senate any unexpected development could be a challenge to our moving forward on an agenda that the Democratic caucus shares,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who said he was very optimistic that the 49-year-old Luján would make a full recovery.
Underscoring the narrow majority, Democrats on the Commerce Committee, which Luján is a member of, almost immediately yanked three nominations that were expected to get votes on Wednesday. An aide noted that the agenda was being “recalibrated to take into consideration the need for all Democratic votes in order to move certain nominees forward.”
The announcement appeared to catch senators off guard.
“Oh my god. I didn’t know that,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), asked by reporters about Luján, said it was the first time that he was hearing the news.
“Oh, my God. I’ll find out. I did not know that, wow, ” Tester said.
Democrats still technically outnumber GOP senators for now.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) is in quarantine for the week because of COVID-19. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) also announced on Tuesday that he went into quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said that he expected Romney and Hoeven back next week.
Luján’s office didn’t immediately respond to question about when he could return to the Capitol. But in a statement they said that Lujan—who at 49 is young by Senate terms—is “expected to make a full recovery.”
It’s not the first time that an absence has deprived Democrats of 50 votes and thrown the schedule into question.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) testing positive for the coronavirus, combined with the threat of a snowstorm, forced Schumer to delay, by a matter of days, votes on election-related legislation and an effort to change the legislative filibuster.
Democrats also delayed votes earlier this year after Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) was stuck in his car for roughly 27 hours as he tried to travel back to Washington, D.C., with the interstate at a standstill because of snow and ice.
Democrats are currently plowing through 20 nominees that Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has teed up for votes, which is expected to eat up the Senate floor for this week and next week.
Democrats can confirm Biden’s nominees without Lujan at the moment because of the GOP absences. If all GOP senators are present, they’ll need Republican help to confirm the nominees.
Other key pieces of the Democratic agenda are in limbo anyways, meaning they won’t be impacted by Luján’s absence.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) reiterated on Tuesday that the version of Build Back Better that passed the House is “dead.” Democratic leaders and the White House have been careful to sidestep committing to a demand from House progressives that they pass the bill by March 1.
Democrats are waiting for Biden to name his replacement to succeed Justice Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court. He’s pledged to name his pick by the end of February but even once he does, it’s expected to take at least a month for the Senate to get to a final confirmation vote.
There are also bipartisan discussions happening on Russia sanctions and reforming the Electoral Count Act as well as a looming deadline to fund the government by Feb. 18.
But each of those, if deals come together, would likely get enough support that they could move through the Senate without Luján.
Schumer, speaking with reporters after the announcement, vowed that the Senate would stay on track.
“We look forward to his quick return to the Senate, and I believe the Senate will be able to carry forward with its business,” Schumer said.
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