Health Troubles Put Pressure on GOP's Slim Vote Margins

Mississippi GOP Sen. Thad Cochran's absence from Washington this week highlighted the hurdles Senate Republican leaders face with a razor-thin majority and a group of older lawmakers with recurring health concerns.

Mr. Cochran, 79 years old, had been expected to return to Capitol Hill this week after recovering in Mississippi from prostate surgery and ensuing complications. But he extended his leave Monday for an indefinite period.

His absence briefly threw into doubt whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) would have enough votes to forge ahead with a vote expected later this week on the budget needed to advance a tax overhaul. By midday Monday, Senate GOP aides said they expected the budget vote would continue as planned, indicating the leadership believed for now that at least 50 votes were secure.

With the GOP holding a slim 52-48 majority, older GOP senators' health-related absences already have forced votes to be postponed or held open.

In July, Mr. McConnell delayed a vote on the health-care bill while Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) recovered from an unexpected eye surgery, and then disclosed that he had been diagnosed with brain cancer.

Mr. McCain, now 81, returned later that month to cast one of the votes that sank the GOP effort to roll back the Affordable Care Act.

And in March, GOP leaders kept a vote open while Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.), who was recovering from back surgery, was summoned to Washington. After flying back from Georgia, Mr. Isakson, 72, returned to the Capitol in a wheelchair with Vice President Mike Pence. Both votes were needed to overturn an Obama-era regulation that would prevent states from blocking funding to health-care providers that perform abortions. Two centrist Republicans were voting no.

The average age of the current session of Congress is among the highest of any session in recent U.S. history, with senators averaging 61.8 years old, according to the Congressional Research Service. In 1981, by contrast, the average age of Senate Republicans was 51.9 years old, while Senate Democrats averaged 54.7.

Mr. McConnell's legislative strategy for big-ticket items such as taxes and health care has relied on a procedural shortcut, known as reconciliation, under which Republicans need at least 50 votes in the Senate, rather than the 60 that most bills need to clear procedural hurdles. To reach 50, Mr. McConnell can lose no more than two GOP votes, assuming that all Democrats vote no.

The slim margin has magnified the importance of losing even one reliable GOP vote, such as Mr. Cochran, who rarely breaks with Republican leaders. On this week's budget vote, a necessary first step to passing a tax rewrite with a simple majority, Senate GOP leaders were already bracing for the opposition of Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), who has frequently voted against GOP budgets and criticized the tax framework released last month as not doing enough to help the middle class. A spokesman for Mr. Paul said Monday he hasn't yet taken a position on how he will vote on the budget.

The budget is a nonbinding document used to signal a party's priorities that does not become law. But Republicans need to pass their budget to use the shortcut they are relying on to pass the tax-code rewrite.

With Mr. Cochran home in Mississippi, GOP leaders need the support of GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker of Tennessee and John McCain of Arizona. All three have voiced some concerns over either the budget or the tax proposal, and the defection of any one of them could derail the budget this week. But Ms. Collins said Sunday on ABC that she was "likely a yes on that budget. I very much want to see tax reform."

Mr. Corker has worried that the budget would add to the federal budget deficit, but supported it in a committee vote. Senate Republicans say their budget blueprint would curb spending by $5.1 trillion over a decade, but it also allows for the tax-overhaul effort to add up to $1.5 trillion to the federal budget deficit.

And Mr. McCain, who wants to boost defense spending, has made favorable statements about the tax overhaul.

Democrats also have had to contend with absences and have pledged to take extraordinary measures should their votes be needed. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D., Hawaii), 69, had surgery in June to remove a cancerous lesion. Democratic aides said she would come back to vote, if necessary, to block an early version of the GOP health-care bill. And aides have said New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, currently on trial for corruption, will return to Washington if his vote is needed.

Some older senators are determined to keep serving. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the oldest sitting senator at 84 years old, announced last week she was running again because there is "lots more to do."

Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch pledged in his 2012 campaign that it would be his last term. Now the 83-year-old Finance Committee chairman says President Donald Trump is urging him to run again, and he is considering pursuing an eighth term to push through tax reform and other GOP priorities. Mr. McConnell is also pushing Mr. Hatch to run again, his staff confirmed.

Asked about his fellow octogenarians in the Senate, Mr. McCain said pressure from outsiders won't influence their decision. Instead, first is the "chance of winning," he said. Second, "there is sort of an evaluation, as to whether your effectiveness and ability to get things accomplished," pointing out that some members retire after the Senate changes power.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 16, 2017 18:01 ET (22:01 GMT)