Sen. Ben Ray Luján’s stroke diagnosis shocked the Democratic caucus Tuesday, raising the possibility the party could lose their slim working majority for the near future.
While the 49-year-old New Mexico Democrat is expected to make a full recovery, no one knew when he would return to the evenly divided Senate, or what it means for the immediate agenda.
“It’s devastating. And the only silver lining is that there’ll be a path to a full recovery,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), of Luján’s diagnosis. “What a shock on an otherwise quiet afternoon.”
Luján’s unexpected medical condition comes at a moment when Senate Democrats simply don’t have any votes to spare to pass party priorities, including reviving their social spending bill and now confirming a Supreme Court justice. The latest news could leave Democrats reliant on Republican votes to move forward on nominees and other priorities.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday evening that Democrats are “grateful” that Luján will make a “full recovery” and that he looks forward to his return to the Senate. He predicted that “the Senate will be able to carry forward with its business.”
Carlos Sanchez, Luján’s chief of staff, said that the senator checked himself into a hospital Thursday afternoon in Santa Fe after experiencing dizziness and fatigue. The senator later learned he had suffered a stroke and had to undergo decompressive surgery.
Luján was elected in 2020. He was previously a member of House leadership and ran the House Democratic campaign arm for two cycles, including 2018 when Democrats won back the House.
Some senators projected optimism about Luján’s trajectory for recovery.
“He should be out pretty quickly,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). “ It shouldn’t affect the agenda too much. … The key thing is that they recognized the symptoms fairly quickly.”
Every few years, health problems can change the composition of the Senate, with the late Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) long absence just the most recent example. Former Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) had a stroke in 2012 and didn’t return until 2013. Former Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) missed eight months after suffering a stroke in 2006. But the stakes are higher here, since none of that happened in an evenly divided Senate, where a long absence could hamstring Schumer’s majority.
Several senators didn’t know about Luján’s diagnosis until reporters asked about when he’d return. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) responded: “Oh, my God,” when a reporter informed him of the news. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), meanwhile, said he wasn’t sure most of the Democratic caucus knew.
“Jesus. He had a stroke? First I’ve heard of it,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).”Oh, my God. I’ll find out. I did not know that, wow. It makes me worried about him, he’s too young for that stuff.”
Democrats this week can confirm nominees without Republicans, with GOP Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) absent due to a Covid infection. But Murphy suggested that, in the short-term, Democrats may need to prioritize legislation that can garner Republican votes. Bipartisan groups of senators are currently working on a Russia sanctions package, as well as updates to the Electoral Count Act to make it more difficult for lawmakers to overturn reported election results. Democrats are also trying to reach an agreement with Republicans to fund the government past Feb. 18.
Luján’s stroke is the biggest health scare Democrats have faced this Congress, after more than a year with an evenly divided Senate. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was briefly hospitalized six days after Democrats took back the majority last year. And throughout the year, Democratic senators have also been absent due to Covid infections. The lack of wiggle room is one reason Democrats are pushing for the chamber to act quickly on the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation.
“We’re in a 50-50 Senate, for any of us, at any time. We saw when a member gets Covid what happens in terms of the schedule,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “We’re all human beings, something could happen at any time.”
Several Democratic senators indicated that it was too early to predict how Luján’s absence might affect the agenda, given the uncertainty about his health and recovery.
“I just think it’s too early to say,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) “We just don’t know any more than what is in his statement.”