Cochran's future in the Senate in doubt
Sen. Thad Cochran, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, hasn’t presided over a hearing since early September. The Mississippi Republican has not given a speech on the Senate floor all year, and he’s introduced only two bills during that time, both of them minor.
To the extent that Cochran weighs in on any issue, it's in the form of an official statement from his office or the appropriations panel. He has stopped meeting with anyone about substantive committee business, including other senators or House members, according to several sources familiar with his activities. Cochran’s aides deny this is the case.Story Continued Below
The 80-year-old’s feeble performance has fueled expectations — among senators and aides who’ve witnessed his physical and mental decline firsthand — that Cochran will step down from the Appropriations chairmanship early next year, or resign from the Senate altogether.
“The understanding is that he will leave after Jan. 1,” said a Republican senator who serves on the Appropriations Committee. “That’s what most of us believe will happen.”
A spokesman for the Mississippi Republican said Cochran hasn't divulged his plans.
“Sen. Cochran has not made any statements regarding leaving office. He continues to do his work for Mississippi and the nation,” Chris Gallegos, said.
Some sources in contact with Cochran's office believe that he might stay until a major government spending bill is completed, which might happen in January or February.
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The concerns about Cochran come at a sensitive time for Senate Republicans. Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee and former GOP presidential nominee, is undergoing treatment for brain cancer and has returned to Arizona to spend the holidays with his family. Democrat Doug Jones, who scored a stunning upset in the Alabama Senate special election this month, will soon cut the GOP majority to 51-49.
And with President Donald Trump sliding in the polls, what had looked like a chance for Republicans to pick up Senate seats in 2018 has now turned into a battle to simply retain control of the chamber. If Cochran resigns or retires, Mississippi would have two Senate elections in November; incumbent GOP Sen. Roger Wicker is also up for reelection. Republicans would be heavily favored to hold both seats in the conservative state.
Gallegos also said there is no new information on whether Cochran will continue as chairman of the appropriations panel. He used the same formulation in his response that the senator's staffers employed for months in fending off questions about their boss’ health.
“He has not made any statements about relinquishing his chairmanship,” Gallegos said.
When asked about why Cochran has stopped meeting with senators or members about committee business, Gallegos said, “Sen. Cochran continues to meet with constituents, advocates and administration officials, including those related to his work on the committee. Many of these meetings have been related to defense appropriations.”
Gallegos pointed to Cochran’s Twitter account as proof of this statement. The account includes pictures of Cochran shaking hands with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and King Abdullah II of Jordan in recent weeks, among others.
Cochran was absent from the Senate for several weeks during September and October due to a urinary tract infection. His wife, Kay Bowen Webber, makes $165,000 as an executive assistant in his office, according to Senate disbursement records.
If Cochran steps down in 2018, Gov. Phil Bryant (R) would appoint a replacement for him, with a special election to fill the rest Cochran’s term taking place in November, the same day as the regularly scheduled election for the seat held by Wicker. If Cochran leaves office before the end of this year, the special election would take place within 100 days, according to Mississippi law.