Ben Ray Luján's Stroke Imperils Democrats' Fragile Senate Majority

The Democratic Party's fragile majority in the U.S. Senate appears even less stable this week after Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) suffered a stroke.

The senator has undergone surgery and is expected to make a full recovery, but it is not clear when he will return to the chamber to cast votes. His absence could prove a problem in the evenly divided Senate.

Without Luján, the Democrats do not have enough votes to break a tie if all 50 Republicans oppose them. This comes at a crucial time as President Joe Biden considers his nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Democrats have 48 senators, plus two independents who caucus with them. Vice President Kamala Harris acts as the presiding officer and casts a tie-breaking vote when required.

Biden is expected to name his nominee to the Supreme Court by the end of February, with a possible vote in March. It is not clear whether any Republican senators will vote for Biden's nominee, who has not yet been named.

Luján's absence is already having an effect on other confirmations, with the Senate Commerce Committee postponing votes planned for Wednesday on nominees to the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Luján is a member of the committee.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters on Tuesday: "We are very grateful that he will have a full recovery. I believe the Senate will be able to carry forward with its business."

However, losing a single vote at this time could endanger the Democrats' agenda.

Luján's absence could be canceled out by a "pairing" arrangement. This parliamentary procedure usually involves a member of an opposition party being paired with a member of the governing party, so an absence is nullified.

In the U.S. Senate, pairing is a voluntary arrangement between members where the member who is in the chamber will vote "present" instead of "yes" or "no." However, it has become rare for senators from opposing parties to co-operate in this way.

In 2018, two GOP senators did pair for a Supreme Court vote. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was opposed to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, but chose to cast her vote as "present" instead of "no" because Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) was absent. Daines approved of Kavanaugh's confirmation to the court.

With such narrow margins and a strong partisan divide in the Senate, a pairing arrangement may not be possible this time.

Newsweek has asked for comment from Senator Luján's office, Senator Schumer's office and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's office.

 Luján Speaks at a Press Conference
Ben Ray Luján speaks at a D.C. press conference on June 19, 2019, when he was a member of the House of Representatives. Rep. Ilhan Omar stands alongside him. Luján is now a New Mexico senator and his absence from the chamber could spell trouble for Democrats. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images