Feb 2, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Senator's stroke catches Democrats by surprise

Sen. Ben Ray Lujan is seen during a congressional hearing.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Senate Democrats are grappling with the impact that Sen. Ben Ray Luján's absence will have on the party's agenda in their 50-50 chamber.

Why it matters: The New Mexico Democrat is doing well and expected to make a full recovery, his office says, but it's still unclear how long Luján will be out of work. A Luján aide said the senator can return to Washington in 4-6 weeks, barring any complications.

  • His absence will handicap the Democrats' agenda — from processing all but consensus nominees to ensuring the president's Supreme Court pick is approved before Justice Stephen Breyer officially retires.

What we're hearing: Democrats were shocked Tuesday when they learned Luján had a stroke — last week.

  • The majority of his Senate colleagues found out through news accounts, Axios has learned.
  • The news came as a huge surprise to members, multiple lawmakers and their aides told Axios, including those in leadership like Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
  • Several senators said they heard through a tweet or chatter in the Capitol hallways.

The shock has since raised questions about who knew what when and why it took five days for the senator's office to make the news public.

  • As many in the Capitol have rightly noted, lawmakers deserve privacy and discretion. But they also have a duty to disclose news about their fitness for office.
  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has, so far, dodged questions about when he was made aware, but he told reporters Tuesday he "didn’t learn it in the newspaper."
  • Schumer, though, had no role in the timing of the announcement, a Senate aide told Axios. “Doctors dictated the timing, not Schumer," the aide said.

Between the lines: The immediate impact of Luján's absence is minimal, given that two Republican senators — John Hoeven of North Dakota and Mitt Romney of Utah — are also unable to vote after testing positive for the coronavirus.

  • Even upon their return, Democrats will still have an operating majority if not a functional one.
  • Luján's absence will create a 49-50 split, giving Republicans veto power on the floor.
  • That means hopes of using the budget reconciliation process to pass potential Build Back Better legislation via a simple 51-vote majority is out of the question, as are nominations unable to garner the full support of the Senate Republican conference.

What it doesn't mean: Despite some concern on the left, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can't dictate Senate business.

  • Luján is still an elected senator, and the Senate's organizing resolution remains the same.
  • Schumer still controls Senate business and what bills are brought to the floor.
  • The question is more so what Democrats can't do, not what Republicans can do.
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