Fetterman chairs first subcommittee meeting after return to Senate

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) presided over his first Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday since his election to the Senate, continuing his readjustment to the Capitol after a two-month absence for treatment for clinical depression and an ongoing recovery from a stroke he suffered last year.

Though his voice stumbled at times while reading from prepared notes, Fetterman appeared in good spirits as he gaveled in a hearing focused on the benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Food Assistance Program, or SNAP. Republicans have proposed increasing the number of people who must meet work requirements to qualify for SNAP.

“Hunger is not a Republican or a Democrat issue. It’s all of our issue that we have to take it on,” said Fetterman, the chairman of the subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research. “We need to come together and stop playing political games with Americans’ access to food.”

Introducing the witnesses who would give testimony Wednesday, Fetterman paused as he noticed one of the men was tall, bald and dressed in a gray suit — just like Fetterman.

“I like that look,” Fetterman joked, drawing laughter from the packed room.

Fetterman, 53, checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Feb. 15 to receive treatment for clinical depression. He remained hospitalized for weeks, and there was uncertainty over when he would return to the Senate.

Fetterman has also been recovering from a stroke he suffered last May, days before he overwhelmingly won the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania’s Senate race. The stroke, which required Fetterman to have a defibrillator installed, sidelined him from the campaign trail for about two months and left him with an auditory processing disorder that inhibited his ability to hear, especially when there is competing background noise.

In February, Fetterman was hospitalized at George Washington University Hospital for lightheadedness during a retreat for Democratic senators. His doctors ruled out a second stroke. He had just returned to Congress from that hospitalization when he was evaluated by the attending physician of Congress, Brian P. Monahan, who suggested inpatient care for depression that had become “severe in recent weeks,” Fetterman’s chief of staff said then.

Fetterman’s ongoing health struggles have prompted questions and criticisms about his ability to serve. Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, wrote last month in an op-ed for Elle magazine that the barrage of right-wing attacks against their family “exploded” after the senator announced he was voluntarily receiving inpatient treatment for clinical depression.

Fetterman returned to the Senate on Monday, along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had been out for nearly six weeks after he fell and suffered a concussion and a broken rib at a private dinner at a Washington hotel in early March.

“It’s great to be back,” Fetterman shouted to reporters then as he walked into the Capitol for the first time since February.

On Tuesday, Fetterman read a statement in the Senate — haltingly, at times — praising various bills signed into law by President Biden. And Tuesday evening, Fetterman posted a video to his social media accounts poking fun at the right-wing conspiracy theory that he had a body double.

“I just want you to know that I’m back and I’m feeling great — 100 percent,” Fetterman says to the camera in the video. “And during my time [in] the hospital, the fringy fringies really came up with a conspiracy that I have a body double. And I just want you to know, that is just crazy. That’s not true!”

The camera then cuts to Fetterman, in another shot and outfit, appearing to open the door to the room.

“Hey, yo, dude, John — what event am I supposed to be doing this afternoon?” calls out the “second” Fetterman, as the song “Just the Two of Us” plays in the background.

On Monday, both Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) welcomed Fetterman back in their remarks on the Senate floor, and praised the Pennsylvania senator for being public about seeking treatment for his depression.

Durbin said he had spoken with Fetterman by Zoom several weeks ago and was “heartened” by his message and demeanor.

“He had the courage to step up and ask for help when he faced depression, to seek professional medical advice, and I could tell by his responses and the tone of his voice that that decision had already made the difference in his life for the better,” Durbin said.

Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.

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