Democrats hit limits with Luján’s absence

Sen. Ben Ray Luján’s (D-N.M.) stroke is forcing Democrats to recalibrate as they hit the limits of their 50-50 majority. 

Senators are hopeful he’ll return quickly — and his aides say he’s expected to make a full recovery and return in four to six weeks barring complications — but his absence leaves Democrats navigating the tricky reality of their slim majority at a crucial moment. 

They’ll have 49 senators to the GOP’s 50 if every senator but Luján is present for the next month.

“We all know it’s an evenly divided Senate and the loss of any one of us even for a short period of time is a major obstacle,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn). 

When Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was asked about the impact of Luján’s absence, he said, “We all understand, everybody in the Senate can count.” 

Luján, 49, checked himself into the hospital Thursday, his office announced Tuesday, and was “found to have suffered a stroke in the cerebellum, affecting his balance” and “subsequently underwent decompressive surgery to ease swelling.” 

“He is currently being cared for at UNM Hospital, resting comfortably, and expected to make a full recovery,” his office said. 

Democrats are hopeful that Luján will be able to quickly recover and return to the Senate, even as they acknowledge they are largely in the dark about the details of when that could happen. 

“We hope Sen. Luján is back soon,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), before adding that he had not been given any updates on when the first-term senator would return to the Capitol. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he didn’t know how long Luján would be gone but, “I’m not so sure he’s going to be out for much longer.” 

“I don’t have any inside information,” Cardin quickly added. “Just from the announcement that they expect a full recovery.”

Senators are also being careful to not get ahead of Luján’s staff about his health, leading to at times emotionally fraught interactions with reporters. 

“I would suggest that you reach out to his staff. … I would suggest that you reach out to his staff,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who previously described Luján’s stroke as “mild,” said when asked multiple times Wednesday about Luján. 

But when pressed if Luján was walking and talking, Heinrich bristled: “You know, like, you guys are unbelievable. You really are. Like, I would suggest you talk to his staff.”

Luján’s absence leaves Democrats short a vote as senators await President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee and the party hunts for ways to revive Biden’s Build Back Better legislation that they would need all 50 Senate Democrats to pass. They now need to lean on Republican senators to conduct routine committee business and confirm Biden’s nominees.

Democrats still have a majority, with Vice President Harris able to break a tie, because Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) is absent with the coronavirus, but he is expected to return next week. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) returned from his coronavirus quarantine Wednesday night. Once they both return, Democrats will have fewer senators present despite controlling the majority. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowed that the chamber would be able to continue its work in Luján’s absence. 

“All of us are hopeful and optimistic that he will be back to his old self before long,” Schumer said. 

“In the meantime, the U.S. Senate will continue to move forward in carrying out its business on behalf of the American people,” he added. 

If Luján is able to return in four to six weeks, his absence could have a minimal impact on the Supreme Court fight. Biden is expected to name a nominee by the end of the month, and once he does it will likely be at least an additional month before a final Senate confirmation vote. Luján isn’t on the Judiciary Committee, though all senators have the chance to meet with a nominee before a final confirmation vote on the Senate floor. 

Asked about the Judiciary Committee’s handling of a Supreme Court nomination, Durbin told reporters, “We do not anticipate any difficulties.” 

A spokesperson for Schumer added “Sen. Lujan’s absence is not expected to affect the Senate’s timeline for moving a SCOTUS nominee.”

Luján’s absence isn’t the first time Democrats’ agenda has hit speed bumps because of an absence.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) testing positive for the coronavirus, combined with the threat of a snowstorm, forced Schumer to delay 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., but the interstate came to a standstill because of snow and ice. 

The late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was absent from the Senate while he was being treated for brain cancer; former Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) had a stroke in 2012 and didn’t return for nearly a year.

Durbin, however, swatted away the comparison, warning that reporters were “making some assumptions” about not being able to get GOP votes for a Supreme Court nominee. 

“There is no indication that Sen. Luján is in that situation,” he added when a reporter brought up Kirk’s lengthy absence. 

But Luján’s absence is already causing Senate Democrats to scuttle some plans. 

The Senate Commerce Committee pulled three nominees who were expected to get a vote on Wednesday with an aide noting that the meeting had “been recalibrated to take into consideration the need for all Democratic votes in order to move certain nominees forward.” The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where Luján is also a member, is also evenly split. 

Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) addressed Luján’s absence at the start of Wednesday’s meeting and vowed to work with Republicans to keep moving nominees through the panel, which is evenly split.

“The ranking member has brought up concerns about the process. … My goal is to make sure that these nominations continue to move forward as quickly as possible,” she said.

Tags Ben Cardin Brian Schatz Charles Schumer Dick Durbin Joe Biden John Hoeven John McCain Maria Cantwell Mark Kirk Martin Heinrich Mitt Romney Ron Wyden Tim Kaine
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