Cloistered at Walter Reed, Fetterman Runs His Senate Operation From Afar

WASHINGTON — In a brightly decorated common room at Walter Reed National Army Medical Center, with floral paintings adorning the purple walls, Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania began the meeting. most days with his chief of staff, who arrives around 10 a.m. carrying a briefcase full of press clips, statements for him to approve, legislation to review, and other business for the day .

The contents of that briefcase include much of Mr. Fetterman’s connections to the outside world these days, as the first-term Democrat from Pennsylvania ends a third week in the hospital being treated for clinical depression. heavy sieve.

The doctors who cared for him have said that Mr Fetterman should limit his exposure to cable TV, the internet and social media – a major information detox for a person whose obsession and occupation is politics.

Mr. Fetterman, 53, rushed back to the campaign trail last year after suffering a life-threatening stroke days before the Democratic primary, a decision that people close to Mr. he believes could have a lasting effect on his recovery. This time, he is set to spend some time in treatment, hoping to return to work in the next few weeks.

After being sworn in in January, Mr. Fetterman struggling to adjust to life in Washington, where the lingering effects of a stroke make the transition extremely difficult. He was briefly hospitalized last month after a bout of dizziness, and then voluntarily admitted himself to psychiatric treatment, revealing to the world his diagnosis of depression.

“We were honest with people about what was going on, we got it out,” said Adam Jentleson, his chief of staff. “The attacks will be as they are, but the attacks won’t get any worse if he stays a few more weeks. The main thing is to let him play and not have to come back.”

That means that for now, Mr. Fetterman is not spending time at the Capitol, but 12 miles northwest of the sprawling Walter Reed campus, where he hikes trails and attends sessions. therapeutic chat. His doctors are continuing to monitor his medication dosage.

Mr. Fetterman often spent his afternoons and evenings visiting family members — his parents and brothers often went to the hospital and stayed until dinner time. At least once a week, his wife, Gisele, visits from Braddock, Pa. There is no limit to how long his guests can stay or when they are allowed in. His small circle is mostly limited to his two staff assistants and his family.

When Mr. Fetterman was admitted to the hospital on February 15, the primary doctor told him his case was treatable and assured him that he would be back the way he was. Post-stroke depression affects a third of people and can be very serious, but also highly treatable, doctors say.

However, his absence from the Senate has drawn the attention of detractors, who have publicly questioned Mr Fetterman’s condition and argued that his diagnosis made him unfit to attend. serve.

After his top aide tweeted photos of Mr Fetterman working in the common room this week, several people posted responses claiming there was no evidence the photos had been taken. staged and that Mr. Fetterman was incapacitated. It’s the kind of discourse that the doctors and his staff assistants prefer than the senator doesn’t see.

Strict modes can be worked on. Those around Mr. Fetterman say they have noticed a marked difference in him in recent days: His sense of humor has returned and he is more sociable, sharing with the nurses some of the sweets he has given him. fellow senators sent him.

As Mr. Fetterman continued to recover, his staffers still marched in his absence, working in a row of dull, windowless offices in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, a space typical job for a novice senator in a senior executive organization.

Fetterman has been hospitalized, he has co-sponsored a bipartisan bill designed to help prevent future derailment disasters, opening new county offices across Pennsylvania and hiring four new employees. . Fetterman sent a letter to the agriculture secretary on Wednesday, urging the administration to deploy resources to the train derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio, to help farmers concerned about chemical emancipation. substances that threaten the viability of their farms and livestock. East Palestine near the Pennsylvania border.

Meetings with constituency groups went on as usual, although there were no minutes of the senator’s traditional salute at the end. But in the Senate, a staff-run institution even in the best of times, that’s hardly atypical.

It is not uncommon for lawmakers to be told by their staff, sometimes after the fact, what bills they are co-sponsoring. With the exception of calls to cabinet officials or meetings with executives from companies important to their state, there are few meetings that senior staff can’t handle.

“Any lobbyist will tell you that if you get to the high position of chief of staff, and that chief of staff,” said Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University. promise you that the senator will do something, it will be accepted.” and a former aide to Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “It’s as if the senator himself agreed.”

Mr. Baker added that even if a senator were disqualified, “a Senate office, especially under an experienced chief of staff, would function fairly normally.”

There are downsides to not being physically present. Mr. Fetterman cannot vote and on Thursday he will miss the hearing of the chief executive officer of Norfolk Southern, whose train derailed in East Palestine, to testify before the Environmental and Public Works Commission. The Senate. Instead of being able to question him directly, Mr. Fetterman plans to send a written statement.

Mr Jentleson said: “If the rail safety bill is introduced while he is out, his in-person presence will be very helpful in garnering votes. But with Republicans not supporting a measure to strengthen regulations, that situation is unlikely.

For many people who do business with Mr. Fetterman’s office, the senator’s health doesn’t matter. On Tuesday afternoon, a Temple University representative sat down with senior members of Mr. Fetterman’s staff to talk about gun violence in north Philadelphia and concerns about recruitment numbers. University enrollment is shrinking, spending requirements are directed by parliament. Mr. Fetterman’s health problems were never mentioned.

However, some of Mr. Fetterman’s colleagues are acutely aware of his condition and have tried to help bridge the gap while he is away.

Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, and Senator Tina Smith, Democrat of Minnesota, both visited his office to speak to his staff and offer assistance. Ms Smith sent out a fundraising email on Wednesday on behalf of Mr Fetterman, describing her own struggle with depression that has prevented her from “feeling happy, loved or satisfied.” Her plea, which emphasizes the courage it takes to seek help, includes instructions for reaching the Suicide and Crisis Hotline.

At the office, the senator’s aides joked that they all got “Fetterman 15” because of the constant flow of cookies, donuts, and breakfasts coming in from other Senate offices.

The jokes reflect feelings of optimism about Mr. Fetterman’s condition and hope that his absence is temporary.

When Mr. Jentleson recently showed up at Walter Reed for a weekend in a plaid shirt, beanie and boots, Mr. Fetterman looked at him and remarked, “I didn’t know you were a farmer.”

The tease is a flash of personality and sense of humor that has been largely dormant over the past few months, but is now on the rise as he recovers.

“No one in the Senate saw him as himself,” Mr. Jentleson said. “That person will become a force of nature as a senator.”


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