Sen. Ben Ray Luján: 'Absolute honor to be back' after stroke

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico returned to Congress on Thursday for the first time since he had a stroke, which kept him away from Washington for weeks and temporarily weakened Democrat's hold on power in the equally divided Senate.

Luján received a standing ovation as he entered a morning hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and was greeted with hugs and fist-bumps from senators later as he stood on the Senate floor during votes.

Teary-eyed, he thanked colleagues at the morning hearing for their support and told them: “It’s an absolute honor to be back.”

“Every one of you that sent me notes, that sent videos, and all the prayers -- it worked,” Luján said.

Luján, 49, began experiencing dizziness and fatigue on Jan. 27 and checked himself into a hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico, his office said. He was diagnosed as having had a stroke in the cerebellum and he had surgery to ease swelling in his brain.

His sudden absence had put new strain on Democrats’ fragile 50-50 majority in the Senate, leaving them without full day-to-day control of the chamber and putting President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda and Supreme Court nomination in doubt. But Luján, in a video message in February, vowed to return after a few weeks of recovery at inpatient rehabilitation facility.

The senator is expected to resume a fairly normal Senate schedule, participating in hearings and floor votes, as he returns to work.

In a 50-50 Senate, Luján’s vote could prove critical if Democrats have to confirm Supreme Court nominee Kentanji Brown Jackson without the help of Republicans. His return could also help jump-start work on other legislation and nominations that Republicans oppose.

As Democratic colleagues including Judiciary Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., stopped by to welcome Lujan back during an afternoon vote in the chamber, so too did Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

Elected to the Senate in 2020, Luján is a quiet but well-known lawmaker on Capitol Hill who helped lead Democrats to the House majority with its record-breaking class of freshmen recruits heading the campaign committee during the 2018 election year. Senators of both parties had been pulling for his recovery.

“We love you Ben Ray and we’re glad you’re with us here today,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said at the hearing.