WASHINGTON (AFP) - A US senator was resting in hospital on Wednesday (Feb 2) after suffering a stroke from which he is expected to recover fully, although it threatens to throw the Democrats' agenda into disarray until his return.
Ben Ray Lujan, 49, underwent brain surgery to relieve swelling late last week and remains hospitalised, his office said, with no clear timetable for how long he will be sidelined.
As he recovers, Democrats effectively lose their advantage in the Senate, which is split 50-50, with Vice-President Kamala Harris wielding the tie-breaking vote.
Unlike in the House, senators must vote in person.
Party rank-and-file fear that advancing White House priorities such as a stalled social spending Bill and confirming a Supreme Court judge on a party-line vote may now prove complicated.
A brain bleed in 2006 took Democrat Tim Johnson out of Senate action for around nine months when he was 59 years old, while Republican Mark Kirk's stroke in 2012 laid him low for a full year at age 52.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer paid tribute to "one of the most beloved members of this body" and said senators were hopeful the freshman member from New Mexico would be "back to his old self before long."
Lujan's chief of staff Carlos Sanchez said in a statement the senator began experiencing dizziness and fatigue on Thursday last week and checked himself into hospital, where the stroke was identified.
'Life is precious'
"As part of his treatment plan, he subsequently underwent decompressive surgery to ease swelling," Sanchez said.
President Joe Biden plans to announce his nominee to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer by the end of this month and has vowed to pick a Black woman.
The first Senate confirmation hearings would not likely take place until several weeks later, with a vote expected in late March at the earliest.
But Biden would need at least one Republican vote if Lujan's recovery takes more than a few weeks.
Ketanji Brown Jackson, the early favourite to replace Breyer, won support from three Republican senators last year when she moved up to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
In the meantime, Schumer will likely focus on judicial nominations or legislation with clear cross-party backing.
A government funding deal or a Russian sanctions package would likely be unaffected, but without Lujan the planned resurrection of the divisive Build Back Better social welfare package appears dead.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the average age of senators at the beginning of the year was 64 years and four months, making it the oldest in history.
The White House was asked in a news conference for Biden's thoughts on trying to pass legislation with a majority so precarious that any senator falling sick can upend his plans.
"Life is precious, as we know. You're... familiar with the average age of senators in the Senate but that is true on both sides of the aisle," Biden's press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
"So I would just say we spend most of our time engaging in good faith about the president's agenda and not making those calculations."