Leahy’s hospitalization shows Dems’ majority hangs by thread
Here’s how fragile Democrats’ Senate majority is: The brief Tuesday hospitalization of Senate pro tem Patrick Leahy prompted nearly everyone in the Capitol to research Vermont’s Senate vacancy laws, just in case.
Leahy (D-Vt.), who has served in the Senate since 1975, returned to work on Wednesday seemingly unscathed. The most senior Democratic senator said he was given a “clean bill of health” after being briefly hospitalized on Tuesday evening after suffering muscle spasms. The 80-year-old Democrat also indicated he’s cleared to perform his normal duties
But just the possibility of Leahy missing a day of work sent a jolt through an evenly divided Senate, which Democrats control with just Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the party’s chief vote-counter, immediately dialed up Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday evening when he heard about Leahy’s condition.
“You consider all the possibilities. And thank goodness none of them you have to worry about today. He’s doing just great,” Durbin said on Wednesday of Leahy. He acknowledged the health, well-being and simple attendance of his members is about to be a daily headache: “You bet it is. It’s not just who’s well but who is present.”
The gruff-voiced Leahy insisted that “of course” he will serve the rest of his term for a state controlled by a GOP governor who has previously vowed to fill a Senate vacancy with another member of the Democratic Caucus. Leahy didn’t rule out running again in 2022 for a ninth-term either and said “the latest polls show me winning easily.”
But even his brief hospitalization is a reminder of how tenuous everything is for Schumer and his 49 members. A long-term absence, unexpected health issue amid a global pandemic or a sudden retirement could hobble his majority at any moment. And in a Senate filled with members in their 70s and 80s, it’s always a possibility that one member’s health could affect the balance of power.
“I’m glad he’s back. But it’s also a reminder than in an equally divided Senate how quickly things can change,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). He said vacancies could be filled, but a Democrat who was absent for any number of days could shift the balance of power back to Republicans.
“If someone was merely disabled but didn’t resign, then that would have that potential,” Cornyn added.
Former Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), whose health had declined, retired early before serving their full terms in recent years. Before that, 89-year-old Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and 88-year-old Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) died in office in 2013 and 2012, respectively. Isakson’s retirement eventually to led a Democratic pick-up, while Lautenberg’s death briefly gave Republicans his seat until Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) won a special election.
Leahy said he’s experienced muscle spasms before, but when they didn’t go away he sought medical attention from the Capitol physician Brian Monahan. Monahan said out of caution that “there’s so much going on let’s not take a chance and I went to the hospital on the way home,” Leahy recalled.
Leahy’s office promptly reported the incident to the media in a press release on Tuesday evening. Despite his good humor, Leahy himself didn’t seem especially excited about talking about his health, and after a few questions an aide directed him toward his Capitol office.
“I had some muscle spasms. And normally I would have said ‘to hell with it, to heck with it,’ but they didn’t stop,” Leahy said. “I’m never comfortable talking about health matters.”
Leahy is one of the most integral parts of the Senate Democrats’ threadbare new majority in a tied Senate. He’s expected to soon assume the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is third in line for the presidential succession and is also slated to oversee what may be a grueling impeachment trial.
Though he’s served in the Senate now for eight terms, Durbin said Leahy hasn’t lost a step. Moreover, there are four senators older than Leahy: Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Republicans Chuck Grassley of Iowa are both 87. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma are 86 years old. After Leahy, his Vermont colleague Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is next in age at 79.
Questions also come up about the ability of some aging senators to carry out their duties. Feinstein, the oldest member of the Senate, stepped down as chair of the Judiciary Committee in September after progressives criticized her handling of Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
The threat of coronavirus is another issue that’s scrambled the Senate’s calendar, forcing GOP Leader Mitch McConnell to cut some days off the schedule last year after some of his members tested positive. Ultimately, however, he pushed forward after those diagnoses to confirm Barrett right before the election.
Each state has its own vacancy laws — and in Vermont any vacancy would be filled within six months by a special election. When Sanders was under consideration for a Biden Cabinet seat, GOP Gov. Phil Scott said he would probably appoint a short-term replacement to caucus with Schumer.
“Sen. Sanders has caucused with the Democrats,” Scott said last year, adding he would consider “a more left-leaning type of independent that would obviously caucus with the Democrats.”
Forgetting all that, Leahy said he feels good enough to consider another run for office, though he said he wouldn’t consider that until next winter. Known for snapping photos of Capitol denizens and showcasing a dry sense of humor, Leahy feigned surprise when asked about having to decide whether to pursue a ninth term: “I might better start checking in to this.”
“You all know this, I never make up my mind until November or December the year before and I’m not going to now. Usually when we start skiing and snowshoeing then we talk about it,” he said.