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Senate absences multiply headaches for both parties

Mitch McConnell is pictured.

The last time all 100 senators were on the floor voting together was more than seven months ago. And it’s starting to take a toll on both parties.

This Congress features one of history’s oldest Senates, a fact that’s fueled ongoing debate about gerontocracy in government. Yet it’s not just age keeping one member — and sometimes six or more — from the floor: Blame a confluence of illnesses, family matters and impending retirements dating well into last year.

Just last week, five senators missed every vote, with several out for extended absences. And it doesn’t look like all 100 senators will be back this week.

It’s not an idle matter, either: Both parties’ attendance issues are affecting Senate business, from crucial floor votes to the mundane business of committee hearings. The Senate last had all 100 members in attendance on Aug. 7, when Democrats passed their party-line energy, health care and tax bill.

“There’s all kinds of occupations in this country where people have to be absent because of health,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “A senator’s no different from a John Deere worker or a professor at a university. If you’re sick, you’re sick.”

Grassley, who prides himself on his attendance record, is recovering from hip surgery but has not missed any votes since he had coronavirus in late 2020. Over the past two months, he’s progressed from a wheelchair to a cane as he returns from the procedure.

Asked how he’s feeling, he replied: “Let me answer your question this way.” Then he carefully demonstrated that he doesn’t actually need the cane to walk.

It’s still not clear when senators can expect the return of either 81-year-old Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is recovering from a concussion, or the 53-year-old Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who is receiving treatment for depression. And 89-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is battling shingles, probably won’t be back this week, according to a person familiar with her plans.

Feinstein’s absence from her perch on the Judiciary Committee is an acute Democratic concern. The party is trying to move judicial nominees out of committee to the floor but have postponed panel votes during her absence. Among the delayed nominees is First Circuit Court nominee Michael Delaney, who has faced criticism over his handling of a school sexual assault case.

“I’m anxious, because I can’t really have a mark-up of new judge nominees until she’s there,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the party’s No. 2 and the Senate Judiciary Committee chair. Durbin announced Sunday that he had tested positive for coronavirus and would quarantine, adding another absence.

It’s unclear if Delaney can get through the committee even with Feinstein in attendance, though other nominees have bipartisan support and might be able to move even with a Democratic absence. And the full Senate can still confirm judges with a simple majority — which these days sometimes involves the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

In a statement for this article, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “We’ve always worked through attendance issues and we’re still able to confirm a record number of judges and pass legislation.”

McConnell’s concussion injury and his subsequent therapy have also affected the Senate’s day-to-day as well as the GOP’s internal operations.

Republicans want to peel back President Joe Biden’s water environmental regulations, but last week’s vote was delayed because McConnell, No. 3 Senate Republican John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) all missed votes. Cruz is expected back this week, according to an aide.

Republicans have several other regulatory rollbacks they want to spring on the majority party, but with a 51-49 Democratic majority, attendance can play a major factor in whether or not a vote succeeds. GOP senators hope to make progress on those this week.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he hoped McConnell would return this week but he had not spoken directly with the GOP leader. A person familiar with the situation said the “decision will be made by the leader’s physicians and the therapists. It’s common for his type of therapy to last anywhere from a week to two weeks.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the GOP whip, is helping run the conference in consultation with McConnell’s top aides in the minority leader’s stead.

Thune partially blamed the lax attendance on some senators not considering the Senate’s recent schedule a must-attend affair. The agenda lately has mostly consisted of disapproval votes of Biden administration or D.C. Council policies, nominees and rolling back the Iraq military authorization — a move with significant GOP support.

“People feel maybe a little bit more flexibility than they would if we were doing really consequential legislating right now. Then you’ve got folks who have just serious either health or family health issues, and I think you gotta respect that,” Thune said.

Plainly speaking, it’s been an atypical three-year run for the chamber. The Covid pandemic caused regular absences, the 50-50 Senate consistently churned out down-to-the-wire votes and two Democratic senators experienced and recovered from strokes last year. So far, no one has endured an absence like that of former Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who each spent months away after suffering, respectively, a stroke and brain hemorrhage.

On the Democratic side, some lawmakers are working closely with Fetterman’s staff to help the first-term senator still have an impact. Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) asked questions at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on Fetterman’s behalf last week and said in an interview he’s consulting with Fetterman’s chief of staff: “Anything I can do to help my colleague.”

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) is also working with Fetterman’s staff to help with constituent requests and potential legislation, like their bipartisan rail safety bill. Casey said he “intentionally” is not dialing up Fetterman because he doesn’t want to impede Fetterman’s recovery with missed calls.

“He’s able to take the time he needs to get the help that he needs. He’ll be back soon,” Casey said.

Casey missed a few days of Senate business in February after prostate cancer surgery, but he’s been back for several weeks. These days, he sounds like he’s ready to announce his reelection plans: “I’ll be able to address that soon.”

And that 2024 Senate map hangs over everything. With Democrats gearing up to protect their slim majority yet again next year in a tough cycle, some downtime is built into the chamber’s schedule for campaign activities.

The Senate’s been in recess for a total of nearly four weeks so far this year, and there’s an upcoming two-week Easter recess in April. And while senators typically fly in on Monday nights and work until Thursday afternoons, they’ve pushed their arrivals to Tuesday both this week and last.

“For me, the rhythm has been disrupted more by the short work weeks,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. He attributed the quirky schedule to “the folks who are in cycle.”

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.


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