Senate Democrats were handed a major boost this week when news emerged that Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) will return to the Capitol when the upper chamber wraps up its April recess as they hope to finally get down to brass tacks on their agenda and confirmation plans in the coming weeks.
Fetterman will return to work more than two months after being hospitalized at nearby Walter Reed Military Medical Center with clinical depression, which aides have said he has dealt with for years, but had gotten significantly worse before he checked himself in for treatment.
His absence and that of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has been sidelined since she was hospitalized last month with shingles, have created problems for Democrats as they have been forced to operate, at best, with a 49-49 majority.
Even with some Republican absences — most notably, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been away from the chamber in recent weeks after a fall — Democrats struggled without the pair, particularly at the committee level where they have been unable to move partisan nominees from various panels to votes on the Senate floor.
“We hope to be back to full strength right after Easter and to get back down to business,” Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, told The Hill.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) is seen during a oversight hearing of the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. (Annabelle Gordon)
For Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the issue has been more acute. The panel was forced to postpone markups for three straight weeks due to Feinstein’s absence, leaving a number of nominees in limbo. Democrats hold an 11-10 advantage on the committee.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told The Hill that he expects both Fetterman and Feinstein in the Capitol once lawmakers are back from the two-week recess stretch.
He said their return “just makes it easier,” noting the absences complicated the path to win the requisite 60 votes to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force.
“When you have absences, it just has a way of upsetting the apple cart sometimes on scheduling issues,” Kaine added. “So yeah, we’re very excited to have them back.”
Among the nominees who’ve been delayed are Michael Delaney, who President Biden tapped to fill the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacancy, and Charnelle Bjelkengren, a district court judge nominee for the Eastern District of Washington.
Delaney’s confirmation is in trouble over his handling of a sexual assault case at a boarding school in New Hampshire. As for Bjelkengren, she is the target of GOP opposition after she stumbled over some questions during her confirmation hearing.
Also being held up is the nomination of Orelia Merchant for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn and two other nominees for trial court seats in New Jersey.
Feinstein will be needed to advance all of those nominees. Since the February recess, the Senate has confirmed one circuit court nominee and 12 district court judges.
“It means that we can have a more predictable schedule on nominations. Right now, it’s only when the schedule permits,” said. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “We’ll have a better process.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) questions nominee for Commissioner of Internal Revenue Service Daniel Werfel during a Senate Finance Committee nomination hearing on Wednesday, February 15, 2023. (Greg Nash)
A spokesperson for the longtime California senator declined to provide an update for when she might resume her work in Washington. Feinstein had initially planned to return by the end of March.
While senators await word on Feinstein, they are plenty excited to have Fetterman coming back into the fold after the struggles of recent months. Senate Democrats rushed to support him amid his time of tumult, and are eager for to see him back in the Capitol complex.
“That’s great news,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). “We all respect his courage and in a post-COVID world, there’s an awful lot of Americans that have some mental health challenges, so I think he’s going to be welcomed back, frankly, by both sides.”
Chairman Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) at the Senate Intelligence Committee meeting to discuss worldwide threats in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (Annabelle Gordon)
Fetterman’s office announced his hospitalization for treatment on Feb. 15. Adam Jentleson, Fetterman’s chief of staff said at the time that the senator has experienced depression “off and on throughout his life. However, it had become “severe” in the weeks before checking into the hospital.
The Pennsylvania Democrat has been closely watched over the past year after he suffered a stroke shortly before the Senate Democratic primary in May. He underwent surgery shortly after his stroke to implant a pacemaker.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) told The Hill on Wednesday that he met Fetterman at Walter Reed on Tuesday and was pleased to see his progress, though Casey noted he was relaying his “non-medical opinion.”
“It was just remarkable how good he looked, how good he sounded. My sense is he’ll be in better shape than he was even before his stroke. He’s really, really in good shape,” Casey said.