As if their stalled and tattered agenda wasn’t proof enough, Democrats just got a poignant reminder of the precarious nature of life in a 50-50 Senate, especially ahead of an impending Supreme Court nomination.
After news broke Tuesday that New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Luján suffered a stroke last week, there was palpable concern for a valued fellow senator and then relief among his colleagues that he was expected to make a full recovery.
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.
And it offered a preview of more serious long-term implications for Democrats if even one of their number becomes temporarily or permanently incapacitated. Thoughts about the fragility of the chamber’s delicate balance of power will have flashed across many minds on Tuesday afternoon. This consideration is especially acute since the Senate will soon begin to consider President Joe Biden’s nominee to replace Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Renewed focus on the slim margin of error available to Democrats in the confirmation process also underscored why so many progressives were so itching for Breyer to retire. They are desperate to confirm a liberal justice while their Senate majority holds to avoid further bolstering the current 6-3 conservative majority on the high court.
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.
There is a good case that Democrats outside Washington and some in the House didn’t fully appreciate the complexities of working with a 50-50 Senate majority that requires every Democrat to form a simple majority, plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. Democrats have learned reality the hard way, after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, both moderate Democrats, blocked Biden’s vast social spending and climate program and a bid to change filibuster rules to reform electoral law.
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.
According to a recently updated Congressional Research Service report, the average age of the current Senate is 64.3 years. But many of the most powerful Democrats are in their 70s and 80s. Even the merest suggestion of something amiss about a senator’s health sends concern rippling through Washington. This was the case when Sen. Patrick Leahy went to the hospital briefly after not feeling well a year ago. The 81-year-old Vermonter, who serves as Senate president pro tempore, has since said he won’t run for reelection. And California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 88, insisted she was fit to continue a term that runs through 2024 following a New Yorker article in late 2020 that raised questions about her capacity.
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.
If they slipped behind Republicans in the tally of seats in the Senate, it would not be the first time a majority party had lost its advantage. In 2001, then-Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont became an independent in a 50-50 Senate and caucused with Democrats, making South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle the Democratic majority leader and stalling President George W. Bush’s domestic agenda in the process.
But that drama paled in comparison to the 83rd Congress when nine senators died in office, leading to a revolving door of replacements as the two parties took turns having the most Senate seats. In early 1954, then-Democratic Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson chose not to press for the reorganization of the Senate under Democratic control. The future president was already wielding huge power as minority leader and was passing some of his priorities by cooperating with the popular Republican administration of President Dwight Eisenhower. Johnson’s bipartisanship impressed voters and the Democrats took narrow control after the 1954 midterm elections, making him majority leader.
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.
CNN’s Manu Raju, Ali Zaslav and Lauren Fox contributed to this story