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Sen. Luján suffers stroke, expected to make full recovery, his office says

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) speaks during a hearing in September on Capitol Hill. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) suffered a stroke last week and is expected to make a full recovery, his office said Tuesday.

Luján, 49, began experiencing dizziness and fatigue on Thursday morning, said his chief of staff, Carlos Sanchez. The senator checked himself into a hospital in Santa Fe, and was transferred to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque for further evaluation, Sanchez said.

“Senator Luján was found to have suffered a stroke in the cerebellum, affecting his balance,” Sanchez said in a statement. “As part of his treatment plan, he subsequently underwent decompressive surgery to ease swelling. He is currently being cared for at UNM Hospital, resting comfortably, and expected to make a full recovery.”

Sanchez added that Luján’s offices would remain open and continue providing constituent services without interruption, but it is unclear how long Luján himself will be out. Luján’s absence comes as President Biden is searching for a Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who recently announced his intention to retire at the end of this court term.

Biden has said he plans to announce a nominee by the end of February. Luján is not on the Senate Judiciary Committee, so his absence would not affect the committee’s ability to vet the nominee and hold confirmation hearings, which probably would take at least two weeks after the announcement.

Democrats, who hold a narrow 50-50 majority in the Senate — with Vice President Harris as the tiebreaking vote — will need a unified front if they want to confirm Biden’s nominee without the help of Republicans when the full Senate votes.

Also on Tuesday, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) announced that he has tested positive for covid-19 and plans to remain in quarantine through Sunday. Another Senate Republican, Mitt Romney of Utah, tested positive last week and is also working remotely.

Though Luján reportedly suffered the stroke on Thursday, key Democrats said they only learned of his illness Tuesday, including Sen. Martin Heinrich, his fellow New Mexico Democrat, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the majority whip, who was informed in the Capitol hallways by reporters.

Heinrich said he had not spoken to Lujan and did not have detailed information on his condition or prognosis: “My understanding is, relatively minor, but he’s still in the hospital and expecting a full recovery.”

Asked when Luján might return to work, Heinrich said, “That’s a question for him and his doctor. … My hope is that Ben Ray will put himself first for the next few weeks so he gets an absolutely full recovery, because I can’t do this job without his help.”

Two other sitting senators have suffered strokes in recent history, leading in both cases to extended absences. Former senator Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) spent nine months recovering after a December 2006 cerebral episode, while former senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) was absent for nearly a year, returning in January 2013.

Their strokes were of a different types than Lujan’s. And while neither man served in an evenly split Senate, Johnson was in as precarious a political position. Had Johnson stepped down, it would have shifted control of the 51-49 Senate to Republicans: His replacement would have been named by GOP Gov. Mike Rounds (now a senator himself) and tie votes would have been broken by Republican Vice President Richard B. Cheney.

In the event the senator needs to vacate his seat, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) — who happens to be a distant cousin of Luján — would appoint a replacement.

Several of Luján’s Democratic colleagues wished him a speedy recovery Tuesday.

“We’re all praying for Ben Ray and his family, we are very grateful that he will have a full recovery. We look forward to his quick return to the Senate, and I believe the Senate will be able to carry forward with its business," said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“Praying for my friend @SenatorLujan and glad to hear he is making a full recovery,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) tweeted.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said Democrats have heard “very, very positive news” about Lujan’s prognosis while acknowledging the tenuous situation in an evenly divided Senate.

“We’re in a 50-50 Senate so for any of us, at any time. … We saw when a member gets covid … I mean that’s just what we live with every day,” Stabenow told reporters.

Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.