Quieter Senate gives Fetterman recovery room
It’s entirely unclear how long John Fetterman will stay out of the Senate. And Democrats are OK with that.
The newly elected Pennsylvania Democrat is still getting inpatient treatment for depression at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, with no concrete timetable for his return to the Capitol. His staff released an update on Monday that said Fetterman “remains on a path to recovery” and is staying briefed on Senate action.
His absence throws a sizable roadblock in the path of Senate Democrats’ 51-49 majority. But party leaders are intent on giving him as much time as he needs to recover — particularly given the lengthy recuperation periods that former Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) needed after significant injuries in 2012 and 2006, respectively.
“We have gone through periods of time since I’ve been in the Senate where members have been [gone] for lengthy periods of time for good reasons, health reasons. I wouldn’t wish that kind of pressure on anybody. Let him get well, let his family feel he’s getting the best care. Those are the highest priorities,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “I wish that his critics would show a little bit of humanity.”
Fetterman’s win in November gave his party the cushion it needs for him to take time to recover, both from his depression and from last year’s stroke that preceded it, without disrupting Senate business. It’s a far cry from last year’s 50-50 Senate, where one extended absence could have derailed things.
With Fetterman out, Democrats still have a 50-49 majority that allows unilateral confirmation of nominees — without a vice presidential tie-breaker. The chamber has no immediate plans to consider legislation that would require 60 votes to break a filibuster.
Fetterman’s absence does mean Democrats can’t afford absences on tough confirmation votes that all Republicans oppose, and that the GOP can more easily approve rollbacks of Biden administration regulations if it has full attendance. But right now, his treatment’s only expected to cause a weeks-long delay that wouldn’t hobble nominees who lack GOP support.
And the bipartisan history of senators taking extended leaves for recovery is clearly helping generate goodwill in the chamber, despite off-Hill criticism from some conservatives.
GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama said in an interview that he “hates what’s going on” with Fetterman and described the progressive as a “good” friend despite the difference in their ideologies.
“He’s still got to work and he’s still got to get to votes. But I hope he gets back sooner than later,” said Tuberville, who has not spoken recently to Fetterman. “I’d rather have him here than not.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said that Fetterman is “trying to take care of his health. And I find no fault with that.”
Several senators, including Durbin and Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), said they’d sent Fetterman notes since he checked into the hospital earlier this month. Most senators indicated they had not spoken directly with Fetterman, according to more than a dozen interviews on Monday — suggesting a broad hands-off approach.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who also suffered from a stroke last year, said his staff had reached out to Fetterman’s team in case it needed assistance.
“Everyone is being very accommodating and wants what is best for John’s health. We are getting zero pressure for him to come back before the timeline we’ve laid out for John’s recovery,” said Adam Jentleson, Fetterman’s chief of staff.
Fetterman just won a six-year term in a seat that’s a cornerstone of Democrats’ majority, meaning there’s no push within the party for him to step down and trigger a special election. And for Fetterman, being in the Senate fulfills one of his life goals: He’s run twice to join the upper chamber, including a 2016 campaign that fell far short in the Democratic primary.
Last year, however, Fetterman romped in the primary and defeated Republican Mehmet Oz by 5 percentage points — even as his health challenges dominated the general-election campaign after his May stroke. Some Republicans argued then that he wasn’t fit for office due to his post-stroke condition and debate performance.
“I think he’s gone through some challenges, and that the stroke had some impacts on his hearing, I think it’s going to come back,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “But I absolutely could see how you can get down in the dumps over that.”
Since taking office, Fetterman has often required a screen with transcription to conduct conversations. Until his recent health setback, he was voting on the Senate floor and also attended and asked questions at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing. His speech was halting and labored as he sometimes mixed up words during the hearing, a remnant of his auditory processing problems following the stroke. Once a famously accessible politician, Fetterman also doesn’t engage with reporters in the halls of the Capitol.
Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, the top Republican on the Agriculture Committee, said that the panel has “made every effort to accommodate him and will continue to do so.”
“He was working hard to try and keep up and get things done,” said Boozman, who had major heart surgery in 2014. “It just seemed like a difficult situation.”
Despite pro-Fetterman sentiment in their ranks, some in the GOP still see thorny political dynamics behind his decision to keep running after suffering a stroke.
“What I would worry about is whether there were people basically taking advantage of him and encouraging him to run for the Senate when he wasn’t physically able to do it, but he wasn’t well. I don’t know the whole story, but it looks to me like that could have been one part of the explanation,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Earlier this month, Fetterman spent several nights in the hospital for what his office described as lightheadedness. Testing during that episode showed no evidence of any new stroke or seizure, his office said later. Then later in the month, before last week’s recess, Fetterman checked himself into the hospital for depression.
Luján, who suffered a stroke last year and offered Fetterman repeated encouragement during the campaign, said that Fetterman’s public acknowledgement of his mental health is a significant step: “How many other folks have maybe done the same thing and not shared about admitting themselves? For John, he shared with the American people, ‘if you’re not feeling well, go in.’”
“Mental health issues continue to carry stigma in this country,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “He helped change how Americans look at that issue. But it hasn’t changed everyone’s mind. So he gets the extra hard look over his illness when other senators get a pass for theirs.”
Meredith Lee Hill contributed to this report.