Away from Walter Reed, Fetterman remotely directs his Senate operation

WASHINGTON — In a brightly decorated common room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with paintings of flowers on purple walls, Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania begins most days by meeting his chief of staff, who arrives around 10 a.m. with a briefcase full of newspaper clippings for his approval Statements, laws to be checked and other day-to-day business.

The contents of that briefcase comprise most of Mr. Fetterman’s ties to the outside world these days, as the first-term Pennsylvania Democrat completes his third week in the hospital being treated for major clinical depression.

Doctors who care for him have said Mr. Fetterman should limit his exposure to cable TV, the internet and social media — an important information detox for someone whose obsession and career is politics.

Mr. Fetterman, 53, rushed back to campaigning last year after suffering a life-threatening stroke days before the Democratic primary, a decision his loved ones believe may have hampered his long-term recovery. This time he wants to take his time for the treatment, hoping to be able to go back to work in the next few weeks.

After being sworn into office in January, Mr. Fetterman struggled to adjust to life in Washington, where the lingering effects of his stroke made the transition extraordinarily difficult. He was briefly hospitalized last month after an episode of grogginess and then volunteered for psychiatric treatment to reveal to the world his diagnosis of depression.

“We’ve been honest with people about what’s going on, we’ve made it public,” said Adam Jentleson, his chief of staff. “The attacks will be what they will be, but the attacks won’t get any worse if he were in a few extra weeks. The main thing is that he gets out and doesn’t have to come back.”

That means Mr. Fetterman spends his days away from the Capitol, and instead spends 12 miles northwest on the sprawling Walter Reed campus, where he takes long walks along the trails and attends talk therapy sessions. His doctors continue to monitor his medication dosages.

Mr. Fetterman often spends his afternoons and evenings visiting family members – his parents and brothers often come to the hospital and stay until dinner. His wife Gisele from Braddock, Pennsylvania, comes to visit at least once a week. There are no restrictions on how long its visitors can stay or what time they are allowed in. His small circle is mainly limited to two employees and his family.

When Mr. Fetterman checked himself into the hospital on February 15, the lead physician told him his case was treatable and guaranteed he would return to his old self. According to doctors, depression after a stroke affects one in three people and can be very serious, but it is also very treatable.

However, his absence from the Senate has drawn the attention of critics who have publicly questioned Mr. Fetterman’s condition, claiming his diagnosis renders him unfit for service.

After his top aide tweeted pictures of Mr. Fetterman working in the common room this week, several people posted replies claiming without evidence that the photos were staged and that Mr. Fetterman was incapacitated. It’s the kind of discourse the senator would rather not see from his doctors and staff.

The strict regime can work. Those around Mr. Fetterman said they’ve noticed a noticeable difference in him over the past few days: his sense of humor has returned and he’s more sociable, sharing with the nurses some of the candy sent to him by fellow senators.

While Mr. Fetterman continues his recovery, his staff march on in his absence, operating in a drab, windowless office suite in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, a typical workplace for a freshman senator in an ongoing seniority institution.

Since being hospitalized, Mr. Fetterman has co-sponsored a bipartisan bill designed to help prevent future train derailment disasters, opened new county offices across Pennsylvania and hired four new employees. On Wednesday, Mr. Fetterman sent a letter to the Secretary of Agriculture urging the administration to deploy resources at the site of the train derailment in eastern Palestine, Ohio, to help farmers concerned about a release of chemicals affecting the viability of their farms and threaten their livestock. East Palestine is close to the Pennsylvania border.

Sessions with constituents continued as usual, albeit without the traditional few minutes of rejoicing from the Senator at the end. But in the Senate, a staff-led institution even in the best of times, that’s hardly out of character.

It is not uncommon for legislators to be told by their staff, after the fact, which bills they support. Aside from phone calls to cabinet officials or meetings with the CEOs of companies important to their countries, there are few meetings that senior executives cannot handle.

“Any lobbyist will tell you, if you rise to chief of staff and that chief promises you that the senator will do something, that’s accepted,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and a former adviser to Senator Harry Reid , Democrat of Nevada. “It will be as if the senator gave the OK himself.”

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

There are downsides to not being physically present. Mr. Fetterman cannot vote and will miss Thursday’s hearing of the chief executive of Norfolk Southern, the company whose train derailed in eastern Palestine, before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Rather than being able to question him directly, Mr. Fetterman plans to provide a written statement.

“If the Rail Safety Bill were to be introduced in his absence, his physical presence would be helpful in winning votes,” Mr Jentleson said. But with Republicans reluctant to back a measure that would tighten regulations, that situation is unlikely.

To many who do business with Mr. Fetterman’s office, the senator’s health is irrelevant. On Tuesday afternoon, a Temple University representative sat down with senior associates of Mr. Fetterman to discuss the gun violence issue in North Philadelphia and concerns about the university’s shrinking enrollment, and called for spending to be directed by Congress. The question of Mr. Fetterman’s health never came up.

Still, some of Mr. Fetterman’s colleagues are keenly aware of his condition and have attempted to fill the gap while he is gone.

Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, and Senator Tina Smith, Democrat of Minnesota, both came to his office to speak with his staff and offer their support. Ms Smith sent a donation email on behalf of Mr Fetterman on Wednesday, describing her own struggles with depression that left her unable to “feel joy, love or contentment”. Her request, which underscored the courage it takes to seek help, included instructions on reaching the suicide and crisis lifeline.

In the office, the senator’s aides joke that they all get the “Fetterman 15” because cookies, donuts, and breakfast are constantly being sent in from other Senate offices.

The jokes reflect an optimism about Mr. Fetterman’s condition and the hope that his absence will be temporary.

When Mr. Jentleson showed up at Walter Reed’s one weekend recently in a plaid shirt, hat and boots, Mr. Fetterman took one look at him and said, “I didn’t know you were a farmer.”

The teasing was a glimmer of the personality and sense of humor that had all but died away for the past few months, but is now reemerging as he recovers.

“Nobody in the Senate saw that he was himself,” said Mr. Jentleson. “This person will be a force of nature as a senator.” Away from Walter Reed, Fetterman remotely directs his Senate operation

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