Monday, December 18, 2017


John McCain is returning to Arizona while he recovers from chemotherapy treatments; he won't be around to vote on the GOP tax bill. Susan Collins is reportedly still reviewing the bill. Bob Corker is apparently still in favor of the bill, but he's shocked, shocked, that a provision from which he'll personally benefit made its way into the bill at the last minute. Mike Lee and Jeff Flake aren't fully on board yet.

Republicans can afford to lose only two votes. (If 50 of their 52 senators vote yes, Vice President Pence will break the 50-50 tie.)

So can we talk about Thad Cochran?

The 80-year-old Mississippi senator missed some votes last week. According to his spokesman, he had "an outpatient procedure Monday afternoon to address a non-Melanoma lesion on his nose." We're told, "The procedure was more extensive than expected."

In the fall, as CNN noted, "An unspecified urological procedure kept [Cochran] away from Washington for weeks. His office then announced that he suffered a series of urinary tract infections after treatment."

But Politico reported this in October:
... Cochran appeared frail and at times disoriented during a brief hallway interview on Wednesday. He was unable to answer whether he would remain chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and at one point, needed a staffer to remind him where the Senate chamber is located.

... when queried about whether he would stay on as Appropriations chairman, Cochran seemed confused and just repeated the question. “As chairman of the Appropriations Committee?” Cochran asked.

Cochran had to be guided by staffers around a security checkpoint inside the Capitol. He started to walk into a first-floor room — though the Senate chamber is on the second floor. He was then ushered by an aide up to the Senate.

When another reporter asked whether leadership had pressured Cochran to return for a vote on the budget resolution — a key moment in the tax reform debate — Cochran smiled and responded, “It’s a beautiful day outside.”

... On one amendment, Cochran voted “yes” despite being told by an aide to vote “no.” The staffer tried to get the senator to switch his vote, but Cochran kept flashing the “thumbs up” sign, even walking over to the clerk tallying the vote and doing so. GOP floor staffers repeatedly told him the leadership wanted a "no" vote. Several more moments passed before Cochran realized he was voting the wrong way and then changed his vote.
I've been acquainted with a couple of elderly people who developed what seemed to be serious dementia as a result of urinary tract infections and stays in the hospital; the dementia diminished significantly when the infections cleared and they returned home.

But there have been concerns about Cochran for a while, as the Clarion Ledger in his home state notes:
Cochran, 80, has faced questions about his health since his 2014 re-election bid and near-loss to state Sen. Chris McDaniel, when Cochran was frequently absent from his own campaign....

Cochran Chief of Staff Brad White on Thursday said Cochran has been "engaged with his office, taking meetings, working on the omnibus bill." ...

Cochran himself seldom fields such questions or meets in person with media and has instead relied largely on spokespeople for several years.
And The Washington Post noted over the weekend:
Cochran, when he has appeared in the Senate in recent months, has been attended by a staffer who sits next to him and alerts the senator when it is time to vote.
Here's a thought exercise. Imagine that Democrats had a major, transformative, presidency-defining piece of legislation -- let's give it a hypothetical name like "Obamacare" -- but the margin of victory was likely to be slim, possibly one vote in the Senate. Now imagine that a Democratic senator no longer had the mental capacity to function as a senator, but was hanging on anyway. In the current climate, can you imagine the GOP and the right-wing media refraining from pointing this out over and over again? Can you imagine the conservative press choosing not to make this a story, out of a sense of collegiality, or in the hope that the favor would be returned at some point in the future?

I'm not in Washington. Maybe Cochran's mind is sharper than I understand it to be. Or maybe a certain senatorial courtesy still holds -- we'll cover for people on your side who aren't capable of doing the job, and you cover for ours.

But in the current state of near-total war, I think there's no way a Democratic senator could lose his faculties without the decline into dementia becoming a major news story, especially if a one-in-a-generation piece of legislation was on the line.

I don't know what Cochran's state of mind really is. But I hope Democrats aren't extending him and his party a courtesy that would never be returned by today's Republicans.

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