The Senate Republicans’ Uncertain Majority

Republicans had hoped that 79-year-old Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi would return to work today, but he had a urinary tract infection recurrence over the weekend. It’s unclear when he will return to the Senate, or how reliably he will be available to vote over the next several months. Given the seriousness of John McCain’s brain cancer diagnosis, it’s also unclear how long he can be counted upon to be in Washington, D.C. Based on these two senators’ ailing health alone, the GOP will be unable to know if, and for how long, they’ll have a working majority in a political chamber they control by a 52-48 margin.

The Democrats have their own problem in Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who just suffered a setback in his legal struggles.

The bribery case against U.S. Senator Bob Menendez survived a key test on Monday, as the federal judge overseeing his trial rejected a defense motion to throw out the most serious charges.

U.S. District Judge William Walls in Newark, New Jersey, allowed the trial to proceed on all charges, five days after suggesting he was inclined to dismiss the heart of the case based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that narrowed the legal definition of public corruption.

Prosecutors have accused Menendez, a 63-year-old Democrat, of taking bribes from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen in exchange for using his office to help the doctor in a variety of ways.

The New Jersey senator has been mostly absent from Congress during his trial, and it’s possible that he’ll resign if convicted, especially of the more serious charges against him. As of now, his replacement would be appointed by Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, but the Democrats are heavily favored to win the race to succeed Christie this November. If that election goes according to plan, Menendez only needs to survive until January to assure that his resignation won’t cost the Democratic Party a seat in the Senate.

So there’s considerable uncertainty at the moment about how the Senate will be divided for the rest of this term, and it’s generally bad news for the Republicans. If they want to pass a budget, if they want to enact anything partisan under the reconciliation rules (i.e. tax cuts) or other rules than allow them to get around a filibuster (i.e. appointments and nominations), some degree of chance, timing and luck will be involved.

And this doesn’t even take into consideration the potential for individual Republican senators to simply vote against the majority in their own party.

Under these circumstances, it seems like a bad bet to build a legislative strategy based on ramming home 50-50 votes in the Senate with the vice president as the tie-breaker. Apparently, though, failure of this type is preferable to admitting to voters and donors and the president that bipartisan solutions are a better bet.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.