Injuries and Illness Slow Senators, as Well as the Senate Itself

WASHINGTON — A pair of high-profile absences has thrown the Senate into a state of uncertainty at a critical time, raising questions about whether Democrats will be able to conduct business and who will lead Republicans through a potentially chaotic period as they try to reclaim the majority next year.

Neither Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, nor Senator Dianne Feinstein, the six-term California Democrat, has been seen publicly in more than a month as the two octogenarians recover from injuries and illness.

After weeks of silence about his whereabouts and the details of his condition, Mr. McConnell, 81, who suffered a concussion and a broken rib in a serious fall last month, said in a tweet on Thursday that he would be back in the Senate next week, when Congress returns from a two-week recess.

“I am looking forward to returning to the Senate on Monday,” the tweet said. “We’ve got important business to tackle and big fights to win for Kentuckians and the American people.”

Ms. Feinstein, 89, who has also shared few specifics since her staff announced in March that she had been hospitalized with shingles, acknowledged on Wednesday that her illness would keep her out of the Senate for the foreseeable future as she recovers in San Francisco.

Both cases have highlighted the challenges of governing with a bare-bones majority in a body populated by an old and frail group of lawmakers.

Democrats had hoped that the seat they gained in last year’s midterms, nudging their 50-50 majority to 51-49, would make it easier to move nominations and run the Senate more efficiently. But it has proved very difficult to keep all 51 senators aligned with Democrats available for any stretch, with illnesses and other conditions afflicting members, even as Congress works to confirm President Biden’s nominees and heads toward crucial showdowns over spending and raising the federal debt ceiling.

Most notably, Senator John Fetterman, the freshman Democrat from Pennsylvania who suffered a stroke during his campaign, was absent for six weeks for treatment of depression, though he too is scheduled to return Monday as Congress resumes.

The absences, particularly Ms. Feinstein’s, have hindered Democrats and made it difficult to advance judicial nominations — a main priority of Mr. Biden and Senate Democrats that is among the only significant acts they can take with no Republican help.

Ms. Feinstein for years has suffered from acute short-term memory issues that have raised serious concerns among those who interact with her. She announced earlier this year that she would not run for re-election in 2024, making official an impending retirement that was long assumed and setting off a crowded, expensive and high-stakes Senate race in California to replace her.

A Divided Congress

But since her shingles diagnosis in February, she has missed 58 Senate votes, prompting some Democratic lawmakers, including Representatives Ro Khanna of California and Dean Phillips of Minnesota, to call publicly for her immediate resignation. Mr. Khanna is a co-chair of Representative Barbara Lee’s campaign for Ms. Feinstein's seat.

In response, Ms. Feinstein made it clear on Wednesday that she did not intend to resign but asked to be replaced temporarily on the Judiciary Committee, where her ongoing absence has limited Democrats’ ability to move forward with judicial nominations. It is not clear whether Republicans, who would have to agree to the move, will allow a substitution.

On Thursday, some of her colleagues jumped to her defense in the face of the mounting pressure campaign for Ms. Feinstein to step aside. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that there was sexism at play in the campaign to force out Ms. Feinstein.

“I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way,” she said, apparently referring to multiple cases in the past in which male senators appeared unable to perform their duties because of age or illness but colleagues mainly stayed silent about it.

Ms. Pelosi has long defended the senior senator from her home state, a fellow female trailblazer who came of age in Washington at a time when it was rare for women to wield political power. The former speaker also is publicly supporting Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, in his bid for Ms. Feinstein’s seat.

If Ms. Feinstein were to resign before the end of her term, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California has pledged to name a Black woman to the vacancy. That person could conceivably get a leg up in a race that already has attracted such high-profile California names as Mr. Schiff, Ms. Lee and Representative Katie Porter.

Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, also criticized those calling for Ms. Feinstein’s exit on Thursday and noted that there was no similar drumbeat for Mr. McConnell’s ouster.

“There have been male senators who have been away from the chamber for quite a period of time who haven’t necessarily had this call for resignation,” Mr. Murphy said on MSNBC. “Mitch McConnell, for instance.”

Still, Mr. McConnell’s prolonged absence — and his refusal to divulge details of his recovery since he fell on March 8 while attending fund-raising events at a Washington hotel — has fueled rumors and speculation in recent days about his condition and future in the Senate.

In contrast to Mr. Fetterman, who announced publicly that he had checked himself in to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to seek treatment for depression, Mr. McConnell did not disclose where he was during weeks of inpatient rehabilitation. And he has remained out of the public eye since returning to his home on Capitol Hill, where he has been meeting with staff members and conducting business.

Democrats have mostly refrained from publicly questioning Mr. McConnell’s absence, and no Republican has called on him to step aside. As the Senate left Washington for its spring break two weeks ago, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican and a top candidate to succeed him, said Mr. McConnell’s colleagues were eager to have him back.

But his long stretch out of the public eye with very little information forthcoming has accelerated discussions about who might replace the longtime Republican leader if he were to step aside.

People close to him insist that he has no plans to do so in the short term, and that he will be mostly unchanged when he returns to work.

“I have talked with Mitch directly,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine. “He is as sharp as ever.”

During his absence, multiple statements on issues before the Senate have been released in his name, including a rare joint statement with Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, calling for the release of the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been detained in Russia on what the two leaders denounced as “fabricated charges.”

Many Republican lawmakers and staff members said the secrecy surrounding Mr. McConnell’s condition was in keeping with his propensity to play things close to the vest and keep both his opponents and allies guessing about his plans.

Mr. McConnell is not the only recent older Senate leader to be slowed by a serious accident. His longtime Democratic opposite number, Harry Reid of Nevada, was hurt badly and blinded in one eye on New Year’s Day 2015 while exercising with a resistance band at his home in suburban Las Vegas.

The 75-year-old Mr. Reid flew back to Washington for the beginning of the new Congress, though he failed to attend the start of the session. He released photographs of meetings with colleagues and a video, though, and returned to the Senate a few weeks later with a bandaged eye.

Mr. Reid did not run for re-election in 2016, and he later said his injuries were a major factor in his decision, though he disputed that idea at the time of his announcement.

Long medical absences are not unheard-of in the Senate. Former Senator Tim Johnson, Democrat of South Dakota, suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2006 that left his speech and mobility impaired. He was absent from the chamber for almost a year.

Former Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, suffered a major stroke in 2012 and took a year to recover before returning to work, where he was greeted by cheers from his colleagues.

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