Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., is expected to make a full recovery after surgery to relieve pressure on his brain following a stroke.
But an uncertain timetable for his Senate return has Democrats effectively ceding the majority to Republicans on a temporary basis. That could mean further setbacks for a Biden administration agenda already stymied by Dems' razon-thin majority and opposition to key legislation by players in his own party.
"We are very grateful that he will have a full recovery," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday about the stricken Luján. "We're all praying for Ben Ray and his family," he added. "We look forward to his quick return to the Senate, and I believe the Senate will be able to carry forward with its business."
Optimistic outlooks aside, mathematics makes the lawmaker's absence a significant complication for his party. A leave by Luján, 49, results in Democrats having 49 votes -- 47 Dems and two independents who caucus with them -- versus 50 Republicans.
"Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer doesn't have a working majority without Luján," according to a Punchbowl News analysis. "So Schumer will have to steer an even more careful path than he has for the 50-50 Senate – if that's even possible. He will only push forward on nominations or bills with clear bipartisan support.
"This would still allow an omnibus spending deal or a Russian sanctions package, but Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's virtual veto on legislation now extends to the executive calendar as well."
The Senate agenda is already being put on hold in committees, and President Joe Biden's eventually successor for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will become more complicated should Luján's absence extended from weeks to months. The president has pledged to nominate a black female for the seat, and Democrats are aiming to fast-tack a liberal to keep from losing any more ground on a bench already skewed 6-3 toward conservative justices.
The Senate Commerce Committee has postponed votes scheduled for Wednesday on nominees for the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and the Consumer Product Safety Commission "to take into consideration the need for all Democratic votes in order to move certain nominees forward," panel spokesperson Tricia Enright said in a statement.
"Of course, we're thinking about him, his family, his entire team, at this point in time," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday at the daily press briefing.
"Well, life is precious, as we know," she added when asked about the absence's effect on the Senate agenda. "You are most familiar with the average age of senators in the Senate, but that is true on both sides of the aisle.
"I would just say, we spend most of our time engaging in good faith about the president's agenda and not making those calculations."
Luján is recovering after decompressive surgery on his cerebellum at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, The Wall Street Journal reported.
"He is currently being cared for at UNM Hospital, resting comfortably, and expected to make a full recovery," Lujan's chief of staff Carlos Sanchez told the Journal.
His symptoms -- dizziness and fatigue -- began last Thursday, Sanchez told the Journal.
The absence will effective halt a Senate vote on the Build Back Better Act and other Democrat-centric agenda items, including Senate confirmations.
If any senator becomes unable to serve, many states have laws allowing their governors to appoint a temporary successor. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lynn Lujan Grisham (no relation to the senator) is a Democrat.
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