How the oldest Senate ever is taking a toll on the business of Washington

In November, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, who is 83, was at the helm when the Senate’s massive tax bill came through the Finance Committee. But Hatch also deputized four younger Republicans on the panel to serve as de facto co-chairmen over various parts of the legislation.

This week, with a compromise bill marching toward final passage in both chambers, the House has to vote first — because a pair of senators, Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), are recuperating from, respectively, non-melanoma skin surgery and the side effects of cancer treatments.

Hatch’s advisers say his move demonstrates a keen sense of coalition building, and aides and friends to Cochran, 80, and McCain, 81, contend that their bosses should be back in the Senate before long.

But here’s something else to consider: All three are exemplars of an institution that has become, by one measure, the oldest Senate ever. Eight octogenarians currently serve, nearly twice as many as ever before, according to records maintained by the Senate Historical Office. Another handful of senators are at least 75.

For decades, older members of Congress have brushed aside questions about their fitness for office. They have defended their health and faculties, and some have implied that those who inquire are ageists who don’t understand that America is growing older.

But the change in schedule for the tax bill is at least the third time this year that Senate leaders paused action to accommodate ailing colleagues. It is now clear that the large number of older senators in positions of power is taking a toll on the operations of Washington.

First came the unsuccessful repeal effort of the Affordable Care Act, delayed until McCain returned to Washington following his initial diagnosis and surgery. McCain as of Saturday was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, suffering from the side effects of an aggressive round of chemotherapy and radiation.

In mid-October, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) waited out Cochran’s return from a debilitating urinary tract infection to pass a budget that was essential to setting up the framework for passage of the tax plan.0

To be fair, some of these seniors are healthier and wittier than their junior colleagues — Sen. Charles E. Grassley, 84, runs four times a week — and some exemplify an aging society where professionals function at high levels well beyond traditional retirement age.

But, collectively, the institution is struggling amid the weight of so many seniors holding such critical positions. Some colleagues say that it has become too hard for senators to walk away at the right time.



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