A delicate discussion, and in the end one we hope will be moot. First, we hope that Senator Ben Ray Luján recovers quickly from his stroke. The 49-year-old first-term Democrat from New Mexico suffered a stroke a few days ago and had to undergo surgery to relieve pressure in his cranium. Thankfully, he’s expected to fully recover:
New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Lujan suffered a stroke last week and underwent brain surgery, his office revealed Tuesday.
Lujan, a Democrat, is currently hospitalized and is “expected to make a full recovery,” his chief of staff, Carlos Sanchez, said in a statement. The 49-year-old senator felt dizzy and fatigued early Thursday before being hospitalized and found to have suffered a stroke in his cerebellum, Sanchez said.
It didn’t take CNBC long to get right to business, however:
Lujan’s recovery and presumed absence from Washington could complicate Democrats’ efforts to quickly appoint a successor to retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
President Joe Biden said he expects to announce his nominee by the end of this month. The president has vowed to pick a Black woman to replace Breyer.
Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate, which is in charge of confirming new justices to the high court. The chamber is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with Vice President Kamala Harris wielding the tie-breaking vote.
Nor did it take long for Luján’s colleagues to address this complication. The Hill notes that some of his caucus colleagues hadn’t heard the news, while others went directly to its short-term implications:
“It’s just a reminder that in a 50-50 Senate any unexpected development could be a challenge to our moving forward on an agenda that the Democratic caucus shares,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who said he was very optimistic that the 49-year-old Luján would make a full recovery.
Underscoring the narrow majority, Democrats on the Commerce Committee, which Luján is a member of, almost immediately yanked three nominations that were expected to get votes on Wednesday. An aide noted that the agenda was being “recalibrated to take into consideration the need for all Democratic votes in order to move certain nominees forward.”
That will certainly be the short-term effect, but not just because of Luján’s absence. Both caucuses are playing short these days. Republicans have three members in the COVID quarantine box (Romney, Hoeven, and Thune), while Democrats are also missing Brian Schatz for the same reason. The snowstorm bearing down on the Atlantic seaboard makes it likely other senators will miss votes over the next few days or even a couple of weeks, too. Unlike the House, the Senate has not adopted proxy or remote voting for the pandemic, either.
As a result, the only business that will get conducted will likely be that with broad bipartisan support. That all but eliminates some Biden nominees for confirmable positions in the administration, but not all. The absences will have more of an impact on judicial appointments, but only when Republican absences are equal to or less than Democratic absences. Legislation is almost entirely stalled, thanks to the sharply partisan nature of Biden’s proposals and the language coming out of the House.
But will Luján’s absence impact Biden’s choice for the Supreme Court? Realistically it will take a few weeks after Biden’s nomination to get to a confirmation, and by that time Luján will hopefully return. If he can’t, then Biden will have to look for a choice that can gain at least one Republican. And he has that option with Judge Michelle Childs, a well-known South Carolina jurist who got all but endorsed by the state’s two Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott. Ketanji Brown Jackson is more the favorite in these sweepstakes, but she’s less likely to shake a Republican loose. She got three of them for her confirmation to the DC Circuit last year, but that’s a different political situation than a Supreme Court confirmation.
This still puts the cart before the horse. Biden won’t name his nominee until the end of the month, which means that the clock hasn’t even started in the Senate. Luján could well be back at that point, although his specific prognosis has not been made clear yet. Even if he’s still a few weeks off from returning, there’s no rush in filling the seat, since Breyer plans to ride out the rest of the term. Schumer could easily push this off until May or June to make sure everyone’s back in the room, including Luján.
Unless something more dramatic happens, don’t expect this to have any impact on Biden’s choice or the process. We hope Luján makes a full recovery and return soon, and given his youth and overall health, that’s pretty likely. The real concern for Senate Democrats is having another member experience a medical emergency that could take the seat away from them on a more permanent basis, which is really the reason why Schumer and Biden would like to accelerate this as much as possible.
Update: I originally wrote Melissa Child rather than Michelle Childs. I’ve corrected it, and apologize to Judge Childs for the error.