Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) has returned to Washington after a stroke left him incapacitated and left Democrats’ slim majority in peril.
The 49-year-old senator suffered from a stroke a few weeks ago, leaving Democrats shuffling to rearrange items on the legislative calendar to ensure their success. In the evenly-divided Senate, where Democrats the slimmest-possible majority with 50 seats plus the vice president’s tie-breaking vote, Lujan’s absence left Republicans with a slight majority.
Now, Lujan has returned to the capital, though he has not yet returned to the Senate floor.
“Through the love and support from my family, medical team, and New Mexicans, I’m getting stronger each day in D.C. where I’m completing my recovery,” Lujan said on Thursday on Twitter. “I’m thankful for the well wishes from folks across the country. I’m back at work and will return to the Senate floor soon.”
During Lujan’s absence, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) tried to mount an effort to defund vaccine mandates and prohibit vaccine mandates for school children through amendments to a federal spending bill. Proponents of the measures asked all 50 Republican senators to stay for the vote, which would have been successful given Republicans’ temporary majority if all Republicans agreed.
However, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) did not remain for the vote, giving Democrats an edge to defeat the amendments.
The funding bill itself passed in a bipartisan vote in order to avoid a looming government shutdown.
Once Lujan returns, Democrats are likely to move forward with a vote on the controversial COMPETES Act, a bill nominally designed to increase U.S. competitiveness with China that the House passed in a 222–210 vote at the beginning of February.
But the bill would also allow for the importation of thousands of new refugees and economic immigrants even as the country is dealing with unprecedented levels of illegal immigration.
House Republicans unanimously opposed the measure with the exception of Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who caucuses with Republicans despite having been officially censured by the Republican National Committee. Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) defected from the Democrats’ caucus to oppose the bill.
The vote indicates that Republicans are largely opposed to the bill as it stands.
If Democrats can’t win the support of ten Senate Republicans to overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold, Lujan’s return would have little impact on the bill’s success. Still, it is likely that the bill will be considered once Lujan returns to Capitol Hill.
Democrats were especially concerned over the fate of President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, who will replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer.
Since Supreme Court confirmation battles have become increasingly partisan in recent years, and because Republicans like GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have vowed resistance to a nominee who’s too far to the left, Democrats have been prepared for a party-line confirmation vote.
Without Lujan’s vote, confirming Biden’s nominee likely would be far more difficult.
On Feb. 13, Lujan assuaged his party’s fears on this front in a video released to Twitter in which he said that he would return in time for the Supreme Court battle.
Lujan said at the time, “I will be back on the floor of the United States Senate in just a few short weeks to vote on important legislation and to consider a Supreme Court nominee. Now, rest assured, New Mexicans can know they will have a voice and a vote during this process. That has never changed.”
The White House has not yet announced who the nominee will be, but Biden has said he will stand by a campaign promise to nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court.
With Lujan’s return, Republicans have little hope of stopping a nominee who they consider too radical.
Under President Donald Trump, Republicans changed Senate rules to lower the filibuster threshold for Supreme Court nominees from its previous 60-vote threshold to a simple majority of 51 votes. Though the change was necessary to advance all three of Trump’s nominees—who faced nearly-unanimous opposition from Democrats—it leaves the majority party in almost complete control of the confirmation process.
With their majority again secured, Democrats remain solidly in control of the Senate.