Politics

Their 50th Member Had a Stroke. But Democrats Can Still Run the Senate.

Sen. Ben Ray Lujan’s health scare provides a window into the grueling work it takes to run the ship.

A photo of the senator Ben Ray Lujan from New Mexico.
Sen. Ben Ray Lujan in Washington in September. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, a Democrat, had a stroke last Thursday. Few people knew about it until Tuesday, when his chief of staff released a statement noting that the senator “underwent decompressive surgery to ease swelling” as part of his treatment.

Some senators first learned about this from reporters.

“Oh my god,” Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the no. 2 Senate Democrat, said when asked about the news on Tuesday. “I didn’t know that.”

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, similarly, said to Politico: “I did not know that, wow. It makes me worried about him, he’s too young for that stuff.”

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Lujan is expected to make a full recovery, according to his office, and could return to the Senate in 4 to 6 weeks “barring any complications.” In the meantime, Democrats’ ability to act as a working majority will be tested, hinging on week-to-week, or day-to-day, attendance levels in the United States Senate—to the extent they weren’t already.

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Senate Democrats have understood that their 50-50 “majority” has been hanging by a thread since they took control a year ago. Something could happen to any one of their senators, at any time, and poof: Mitch McConnell would be back to setting the agenda.

As Tester’s comment hinted at, no one expected that it could be Lujan, a 49-year-old freshman elected in 2020, who might suffer a serious health scare. There are, shall we say, many more actuarially likelier candidates within the Senate Democratic caucus to require an extended absence.

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Until Lujan returns, Democrats will have one fewer vote than Republicans when there’s full Senate attendance. That effectively puts the kibosh on the passage of partisan legislation, including any resurrection of the bill formerly known as Build Back Better, until the spring—though, at those negotiations’ current pace of zero miles per hour, that’s probably not an issue.

And though Lujan’s timetable for return would align with the schedule for confirming a new Supreme Court justice around mid-April, there are other contentious nominees whose confirmations may have to await the return of a 50-Democrat Senate. On Thursday, for example, the Senate Banking Committee held a confirmation hearing for Sarah Bloom Raskin to a position at the Federal Reserve. Republicans did not take kindly to her stance that banking regulators should use their power to address climate change, so hers could be an all-Democrats-on-deck vote.

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In committees on which Lujan serves, meanwhile, Democrats could be forced to postpone votes on contentious nominees altogether. The Commerce Committee did exactly that this week, and so the FCC will remain gridlocked indefinitely.

Republican leaders, knowing they will have the ability to keep contentious nominations from moving forward, will press for 100 percent attendance from their ranks while Lujan remains absent. But there are conflicts they won’t always be able to control.

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Even with Lujan’s absence, for example, Democrats still had a 49-48 attendance majority this week because two Republican senators, Utah’s Mitt Romney and North Dakota’s John Hoeven, were out with COVID. There could be a week sometime during Lujan’s absence that another Republican is out with COVID, or some other ailment, or has a can’t-miss tee time on an exclusive golf course. If the attendance for the week looks like it will be 49 to 49, Democrats can put one their challenging nominations to a vote.

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In a way, then, this situation is a window into how Democrats have had to run the ship this entire, grueling 50-50 Senate.

Leaders are constantly checking in on fluctuating attendance levels to see what they can and can’t do during any given week, day, or hour. Just last month, Democrats pushed a showdown on voting rights into the next week because Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz had come down with COVID. And Democrats confirmed a slew of nominees in late December with fewer than 50 votes when dozens of senators flew out early for the holidays.

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The Senate floor can seem like a carefully choreographed TV show, with few real surprises ever occurring. Beyond the floor, though, the cloak room is filled with staffers trying to ascertain when someone’s flight is landing, or who’s going to a son’s football game, to put the script into place during a commercial break.

Lujan, then, should feel no rush to return. Maybe a few confirmation votes are delayed a month. For the most part, though, the narrowly split Senate will continue operating as it has for the last year, with an attendance check each morning to see who has called in sick.

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