The Democrats’ fragile hold on the Senate majority became vividly apparent Wednesday with the sudden illness of New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Luján, who won't be back to work for at least four weeks, throwing President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court pick and lagging legislative agenda in doubt.
The 49-year-old Democrat remained hospitalized after suffering a stroke and is expected to make a full recovery. But Senate colleagues were blindsided by the news — even top-ranking leaders were reportedly unaware that Luján fell ill last Thursday, a stunning oversight. Barring any complications, he is expected to be back at work in four to six weeks, according to a senior aide granted anonymity to discuss the situation.
Without Luján's presence, the party no longer has full day-to-day control of what has been an evenly split Senate, leaving Biden’s potential Supreme Court nomination, big priorities and even routine business at risk in the face of Republican objections.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who went to the White House later Wednesday to discuss the court nominee with Biden, spoke of the “awful, frightening” situation, but remained hopeful that Luján, one of the chamber's youngest members, would be “back to his old self” before too long and the Senate would carry on with its business.
“All of us are rooting for him every step of the way — between now and the day he makes his return to the Senate,” Schumer said Wednesday.
The uncertainty shows just how precarious the Democrats' hold on power in Washington really is and the limits of Biden's ability to usher what's left of a once-bold agenda through Congress. The president's chance to confirm a Supreme Court nominee, a hoped-for reset for the administration and the party, could be dangerously at risk if Democrats are unable to count on their majority to overcome hardening Republican opposition.
Already, routine Senate business was being rearranged Wednesday, as the Senate Commerce Committee announced it would be postponing consideration of some of Biden's executive branch nominees because the panel, on which Luján is a member, needs all Democrats for the votes.
More pressing, though, is the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation battle to replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer. Democrats have been eager to shift to the high court fight, believing it will galvanize voters at a time when Biden's broader legislative agenda, including his sweeping Build Back Better Act and voting legislation, have collapsed.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the panel is planning to push ahead with consideration of Biden's Supreme Court pick as soon as the president announces his nominee, expected later this month.
“We don’t anticipate any difficulties,” Durbin told reporters at the Capitol.
The Senate is split 50-50, with Democrats holding an ever-so-fragile majority because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote.
As it stands, Biden's agenda has fallen apart on Capitol Hill, taken down by the one-two punch of Republican opposition and two Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have joined Republicans to halt the president's priorities.
Lujan's illness is a reminder it's not just Manchin, Sinema and Republican opposition, but the health and welfare of every single senator that could make or break the Democrats' hold on power and the outcome of Biden's agenda.
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has stymied both parties, as senators have been forced to isolate after testing positive for the virus or being exposed. This week, two Republicans, Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and John Hoeven of North Dakota, are working remotely because of positive virus tests.
“We always knew a 50/50 Senate was going to require patience as well as cooperation and we hope he’s back soon,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.
Asked if progress on the president's agenda could be imperiled, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “Life is precious," and noted the average age of senators. It is 64.
"I would just say we spend most of our time engaging in good faith about the president’s agenda, and not making those calculations,” Psaki said.
Luján's condition appears serious, but also improving. He is expected to be out for at least a month, according to a Democrat familiar with the situation who discussed it on condition of anonymity.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the chairman of the Finance Committee, said, “Everybody in the Senate can count so we all know what votes mean."
Past illnesses, including strokes, have led to prolonged absences in the Senate, most recently with Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois and earlier with Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota.
More recently, the Democratic majority was briefly at risk last year when Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., underwent breast cancer treatment.
Rarely has a president tried to accomplish so much in Congress with so slim a majority, and the fallout has been swift and stark.
Luján's office announced that he checked himself into a hospital in Santa Fe on Thursday. His chief of staff, Carlos Sanchez, said the senator was then transferred to a hospital in Albuquerque for further evaluation.
His office added that Luján is still in the hospital but is expected to make a full recovery.
“Senator Luján was found to have suffered a stroke in the cerebellum, affecting his balance,” the statement released Tuesday said. “As part of his treatment plan, he subsequently underwent decompressive surgery to ease swelling.”
Most Senate Democrats hadn’t spoken directly to Luján or his office as of Wednesday. Even his New Mexico colleague, Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich, shut down reporters inquiring about Lujan’s health and wellbeing, calling the questions “unbelievable.” But his absence was felt throughout the Senate, with both Republicans and Democratic lawmakers hailing his bipartisan work at the Commerce hearing Wednesday morning, according to committee chairwoman Maria Cantwell.
“He’ll be back," Cantwell said. "But this is just a reminder of how fragile we all are as individuals, And certainly we get all in the big fight about trying to get things done, but this is a reminder that we should all work together.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the entire Senate is “praying for and pulling for our colleague.”
GOP Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota said he texted Luján Tuesday night to tell him he was thinking about him, but has not heard back yet and his staff said, "It may be a couple of days before he’s able to get back to you.”
Elected to the Senate in 2020, Luján is a quiet but well-known lawmaker on Capitol Hill, who helped lead Democrats to the House majority with its record-breaking class of freshmen recruits heading the campaign committee during the 2018 election year.
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.