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Sen. Ben Ray Luján returns to Senate, just one month after major stroke

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) speaks during a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on Sept. 30, 2021, in Washington. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico returned to work in the Senate on Thursday morning, barely a month after suffering a major stroke that left him hospitalized for weeks and sent a chill through fellow Democrats clinging to a 50-50 majority.

Luján, 49, walked in and out of a Senate Commerce Committee meeting without assistance, where he was greeted with a bipartisan standing ovation.

“To every one of you that sent me notes, sent videos and all the prayers, it worked,” he said on the committee dais. “And it’s good to be back, I’ll tell you.”

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

Aside from a buzz cut, Luján looked and sounded much the same as before the stroke. In brief comments to reporters after the meeting, he thanked all those who treated him, attended to him in the hospital and sent him good wishes during his recovery. He said was “back to work” and expects to fully participate in Senate business going forward, including a Thursday afternoon floor vote.

“We were going to come last week, but everyone said, you know, you need to get a little stronger, just get better and take care of yourself,” he said. “The compromise was, let’s get back this week, and I said, ‘Okay, let’s do that.’ ”

Among those who greeted Luján after he arrived Thursday was Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), a close friend of Luján’s dating back to their years together in the House. “It’s like a miracle, almost, right?” she said. “No one would have expected Ben Ray to survive and thrive and be back here so quickly. Couldn’t be prouder.”

Luján’s return comes as a personal relief to his colleagues but also as a political relief to Democrats, who were faced with the prospect of a long-term absence when news broke of his Jan. 27 stroke. Neurological issues had sidelined two other senators in recent memory — Sens. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) in 2006-07 and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) in 2012 — for year-long stretches.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján’s stroke shows the fragility of Democrats’ Senate majority

Luján’s stroke occurred in the cerebellum, a section of the rear brain that controls balance and motor functions. Cerebellar strokes, according to neurologists, are typically easier to treat and have more manageable effects than strokes elsewhere in the brain. Luján’s office disclosed that he had undergone surgery to address swelling related to the stroke.

Several key partisan votes lie ahead on the Senate agenda, none more closely watched than the Supreme Court nomination of U.S. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Luján’s vote Thursday in the Commerce Committee was decisive in advancing two key Biden nominees, Gigi B. Sohn to the Federal Communications Commission and Alvaro M. Bedoya to the Federal Trade Commission. Sohn and Bedoya can now advance to the Senate floor, with their potential confirmations securing majorities of Democratic appointees on those two bodies.

Biden’s tech and telecom agenda hinges on breaking the deadlocks at FCC and FTC

Luján said it was no mistake that he made sure to show up for Thursday’s Commerce vote, citing his long commitment to improving rural broadband communications in his own state and others.

“When we’re building out broadband in America, if we don’t get the FCC and the FTC ready to roll, it’s not going to get done,” he said. “I’ve been talking about the importance of these two nominations.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) was among those praising Luján’s return — on multiple levels.

“In a world with not a lot of good news, that was a great way to start the day,” he said, adding: “We needed the vote. In very crass, practical terms, we needed him there.”

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