Senate pause, again: Leahy breaks hip, undergoes surgery

( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

For the second time this year, Senate Democrats will likely have to pause the more contentious items on their agenda due to medical issues. Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, at 82 the longest-serving member of the upper chamber, broke his hip in a fall at his home last night. He will undergo surgery to repair the damage, and so will be unable to cast any votes in a 50/50 chamber:

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont has broken a hip in a fall at his home and was to undergo surgery to repair it, his office said Thursday.

The 82-year-old Democrat fell Wednesday night in McLean, Virginia, the statement said. Doctors determined the best course of action would be to have surgery to repair the hip as soon as possible.

Leahy was born blind in one eye.

“The senator has had a lifelong struggle with reduced depth perception,” the statement said. “He has taken some remarkable dingers over the years, but this one finally caught up with him.”

First off, we certainly want to wish Senator Leahy a speedy and full recovery. A broken hip at 82 is no joke, but medical response and rehabilitation for such injuries has markedly improved over recent decades. Hopefully, Leahy will recover well and quickly enough to get a chance to make another cameo appearance in the next Batman movie, whenever that gets made. Leahy planned on retiring at the end of the year anyway, but he certainly will prefer to retire under full steam.

That brings us to the rest of Leahy’s colleagues. This makes the second time this year that Senate Democrats have dipped below the 50-seat mark in the Senate for any significant period, and that creates some headaches. In February, Ben Ray Luján suffered a stroke and had to have brain surgery, which forced him to remain absent a few weeks. Luján made a full recovery and came back to work in the spring, but the absence forced Chuck Schumer to juggle the more contentious parts of his agenda until he had all 50 votes again.

Schumer now faces the same problem, and he has a lot less legislative calendar space in which to operate than he did with Luján. If Leahy heals up quickly, and hopefully he will, much of the lost time could be absorbed in the August recess. Presumably Leahy will aim to get back in two months when Congress resumes its session after Labor Day. Even if that’s the case, though, Schumer needed to push some votes when the Senate returns to session between July 9 and August 7. For one thing, ATF nominee Steve Dettelbach still requires a confirmation vote, which would now require at least one Republican, although it appears that Schumer already has Susan Collins and Rob Portman for confirmation.

Leahy’s absence might end up providing the final death blow to Schumer’s hopes of passing a Build Back Better bill, however. Supposedly, Schumer and Manchin are still negotiating a reconciliation bill that has gone nowhere for almost a year now and probably wasn’t going anywhere ever. That can’t pass without fifty votes plus Kamala Harris’ tiebreaker. Even the clunky “paired voting” process won’t help as no Republican will lift a finger to help Joe Biden spend another trillion dollars or so that doesn’t exist for climate change and other progressive-agenda hobby horses.

By the time Leahy makes it back, it will be far too late for the reconciliation package. Congress will have to work on funding the FY2023 budget in September plus deal with the fallout of the Dobbs and West Virginia v EPA cases, the latter of which should drop today. If Leahy can’t make it back, then even the confirmation process will stall out. The only items Schumer will be able to move will be those which can get some Republican support, and other than on the budget, those will be mighty tough to find right before a midterm election.

Of course, Schumer could set a new course and look for such bipartisan projects. That would be a very different course indeed for Schumer and Joe Biden, and one has to wonder whether he’d find any takers not named Manchin or Sinema in his own caucus for such a change in direction. They’d better choose their navigation quickly. And perhaps even a new navigator.