Analysis: Democratic senator’s stroke exposes fragility of 50-50 Senate majority
At 49, Luján is one of the geriatric Senate’s young bucks, yet his sudden hospitalization, at least for now, deprives Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of a functioning majority if he needs to call a short-notice vote.
Democrats believe they have a good chance to get at least a few GOP votes to confirm Biden’s yet-to-be-announced nominee that would give them some breathing space. But given the stark polarization in Washington, it’s not out of the question that tactical calculations could change if the political winds shift. Without Republican votes, they would need all 50 Democratic senators to vote in person to back the nomination.
Speed is therefore of the essence for Democrats to avoid any mishaps with the Supreme Court confirmation. Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin of Illinois said Tuesday that Biden was hoping for a brisk confirmation process of about 40 days once he’s named his pick. If the President announces his nominee by the end of this month, that could give Luján two months or more of convalescence before a final vote if necessary.
Schumer moved quickly to shut down speculation about the resilience of the Democratic majority and quickly said that the priority was for Luján to recover. “We are all grateful that he will have a full recovery,” the New York Democrat told reporters, before sending a message to calm Democratic nerves.
“We look forward to his quick return to the Senate and I believe the Senate will be able to carry forward with its business,” Schumer said.
Several of Luján’s other colleagues also stressed that he was expected to make a full recovery and should be back among them soon.
“I think what’s important is that it’s really easy for all of us in this business to put this place first,” said Luján’s fellow New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich. “My hope is that Ben Ray will put himself first for the next two weeks.”
Aged Senate stirs concern among Democrats
A sudden reminder of mortality in any workplace can be unsettling. And given the huge political implications of the Senate’s delicate balance of power and the advanced age of its incumbents, such shocks especially reverberate on Capitol Hill.
In the event Feinstein leaves before the end of her term, California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom could name a replacement and he has said he would choose a Black woman. Leahy’s state, Vermont, which has a GOP governor, has a tradition of naming an interim replacement from the same party as the departing senator. States have various rules on naming replacement senators and interim seat warmers and on calling special elections. But it’s not impossible that a Democratic senator forced to resign or die would be replaced, at least for a short time, by a Republican governor in a way that shifts majority control to the GOP.
Even if that doesn’t happen, things are tough enough for Schumer as he tries to come up with a way to revive Biden’s Build Back Better plan and somehow keep the fight for voting rights reform alive. Before Luján’s condition became known, several brief episodes encapsulated the Democratic conundrum.
Asked whether he had held talks with fellow Democrats about the Build Back Better plan, Manchin replied on Tuesday: “No, no, no, no. It’s dead.” Later, the West Virginian said that anything that was done would have to get structured differently than the latest, failed version of Biden’s key bill. “You always start at scratch,” he said, even though Schumer later insisted that he was fighting hard to get as much as possible included in the plan. Previous drafts included free pre-K tuition and boosts for home health care for sick and elderly Americans as well as half a billion dollars in climate spending.
How majorities can change midterm
The showdown with Manchin underscores the need for Democrats to act quickly on their priorities since they are not necessarily guaranteed to hold their thin majority until the next Congress is elected in midterm elections in November.
Such a scenario is unlikely in today’s polarized times when differences are more sharply defined by party affiliation than in Johnson’s day, when coalitions were often forged on ideological and geographical faultiness that spanned both parties. The idea that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would pass up the chance to take power again is unthinkable.