JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi senator's frail appearance on Capitol Hill this week raises questions that make some of his home-state supporters downright queasy.
Is Republican Thad Cochran, the 79-year-old chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, well enough to serve the final half of his six-year term? What happens to Mississippi's political clout if he resigns?
Cochran stayed home for a month with urinary tract infections, returning to Washington this week to give Republicans the majority they needed to pass a budget plan.
If Cochran were to resign, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant would appoint a senator to serve until a special election.
However, Cochran chief of staff Brad White told The Associated Press on Friday that the senator is still in recovery mode and intends to stay on the job.
"There has not been one conversation from Thad Cochran about stepping down," White said.
The governor said he fully supports the senator.
"Mississippi is stronger because of Sen. Cochran's service, and I look forward to it continuing," Bryant said Friday. "Speculation about anything else is insensitive, irresponsible and unfair."
Henry Barbour, a political consultant and member of the Republican National Committee from Mississippi, ran a SuperPAC that backed Cochran in 2014. He bristles at questions about whether Cochran should or would leave office.
"It's presumptuous to even talk about it," Barbour said Friday. "He's our elected senator, and I'm pleased he's able to be back in Washington working for the state of Mississippi."
Cochran served six years in the House before winning a Senate seat in 1978, becoming Mississippi's first statewide Republican official since Reconstruction.
He served his first stint as Senate Appropriations chairman in 2005-06 and retained influence over spending even when Democrats later held the Senate majority. Cochran has received praise — and scorn — for channeling billions of dollars to Mississippi for universities, military installations and big projects such as Hurricane Katrina recovery.
White-haired and polite, Cochran is so well known in Mississippi that his campaign bumper stickers simply use his first name. He had coasted to re-election since the 1980s but was almost unseated in a bitter 2014 Republican primary by Chris McDaniel, a state lawmaker backed by tea party groups that criticize Cochran as a big spender.
With Republicans back in the majority after the 2014 election, Cochran regained the chairmanship of Appropriations in early 2015 and is scheduled to retain that spot until early 2019.
The Appropriations Committee canceled a session this week to draft and consider bills, and no such session is planned next week. Some see that as an indication Cochran is currently in no shape to run the committee.
Top Republicans in Mississippi are reluctant to discuss whom Bryant might appoint if Cochran leaves the Senate, though speculation abounds privately among some political consultants, who say the governor might look to a friend such as U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper or a sometime ally such as Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.
Reeves and Harper, both Republicans, won't even broach the possibility of a Cochran departure.
"Any speculation or campaigning for a Senate seat that was filled by election in 2014 is grossly premature as Sen. Cochran continues to serve the people of Mississippi while recovering from his illness," Reeves said Friday.
Harper was first elected to the House in 2008 and campaigned side-by-side with Cochran in 2014, when questions were already swirling about Cochran's health and stamina.
"We believe and anticipate Sen. Cochran will serve out his term, and we certainly pray for him as he recovers from some health concerns," Harper said Friday. "I know Sen. Cochran to be a champion for Mississippi and a very competitive individual, so I believe the state of Mississippi will continue to be in good hands with Sen. Cochran."
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