WASHINGTON — Top Republicans coping with a razor-thin majority as they try pushing a partisan agenda through the Senate are running smack into another complication — the sheer age and health issues of some senators.
When the office of the ailing Sen. Thad Cochran announced Monday that it was the Mississippi Republican's “intention to return to the Senate when his health permits,” it underscored the challenges of navigating a chamber that's the second oldest ever. Cochran's absence narrows the GOP's margin for error on a pivotal budget vote this week, and the Appropriations Committee that he chairs hasn't churned out any spending bills for next year since he was last in Washington in mid-September.
Cochran isn't the only GOP senator with health issues that have caused them to miss time this year in Washington. In July, the Senate delayed votes for a week on repealing President Barack Obama's health care law after Sen. John McCain of Arizona, now 81, was diagnosed with brain cancer. And Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, 72, was away for two back surgeries early in 2017, two years after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a degenerative neurological condition.
In addition, a pair of 80-somethings are up for re-election in 2018, one from each party. They're among 16 senators facing re-election who come Election Day 2018 will be at least 65 — an age when many people have already retired.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, 83, hasn't announced a final decision on whether he'll seek an eighth, six-year term next year. On the Democratic side, California's Dianne Feinstein — at 84 the oldest current senator — has announced she will run again next November. If re-elected, she might serve till she's 91 — an age reached by only four other senators while serving.
“The ability to get things done counts. And the compassion, vigor, and stamina to make a difference counts,” she said last week, as if pre-emptively fending off questions about her age.
It didn't stop 50-year-old Kevin De Leon, the president pro tem of the California state Senate, who announced on Sunday his challenge to Feinstein.
Overall, senators averaged 61.8 years old when the current two-year Congress began in January, according to the Senate Historical Office. That's tied for second oldest with the Senate that began in 2007. That was surpassed only by the two-year session that began in 2009, when senators averaged 62.7 years of age.
Right now, the chamber has seven senators at least 80 years old — excluding Cochran, who reaches that age in December.
That's rarified air, even for the Senate. Of the nearly 2,000 people who have served as senators, just 42 were still in office at age 80, according to the historical office. The oldest: Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who left office at age 100 in 2003, six months before he died.
The average age of senators was in the mid- to late 40s during the earliest Congresses. It's fluctuated but gradually risen since then, in part tracking a steady increase in life expectancy in the U.S. It also reflects a political reality — voters usually like to re-elect incumbents because they value them, so senators are serving longer.
“Most voters at one time or another say they wished senators would serve a term or two and get out,” said Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. But when it comes to their own senator they feel, “'Seniority is really valuable, we don't want to lose that,’” he said.
This week, GOP leaders aim to push a budget through the Senate that would lay the groundwork for the chamber to approve huge tax cuts later this year. With a 52-48 majority, Republicans can normally afford just two defections and still approve legislation because Vice President Mike Pence can cast tie-breaking votes.
Cochran's absence means the budget would fail if more than one GOP senator votes “no.” But in a sign of confidence, Senate leaders still planned the budget vote this week.
Cochran has a urinary tract infection and is remaining in Mississippi “on the advice of his physicians and other health care professionals,” chief of staff Brad White said in a statement.
Cochran has been away from Washington since the week of Sept. 18.