An omnibus bill wrapping up fiscal 2018 spending could serve as a victory lap for Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, who continues to battle questions over his health and stamina in the role.
Rumors have swirled quietly for months about the 80-year-old Mississippi Republican’s future. Those whispers became louder last year after Cochran took a prolonged absence from the Senate due to health issues.
Colleagues on both sides of the aisle say they have heard rumors that Cochran would leave before the end of his term in 2021, but they have no direct knowledge of his decision-making process. Two GOP senators, speaking on background to discuss internal conversations, said they expect a possible announcement after work on the upcoming omnibus is over.
Cochran, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has not given any indication either way. But there are signs an early retirement could be imminent.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly asked Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, to appoint himself to the seat should Cochran resign, an offer the governor declined, according to The Washington Post.
Lawmakers say strong leadership will be needed to navigate the thin margin between Republicans and Democrats on the Appropriations panel, particularly with such a closely divided Senate.
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Still, Cochran is held in high regard by his colleagues of both parties. Members also had ample praise for the panel’s staff, citing their willingness to work with senators who are not even on the committee, among other things.
“He’s got a great organization over there, and they’ve done a lot of great work,” said North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who is not an appropriator. “It’s a testament to his leadership.”
One GOP member pointed to staff director Bruce Evans and his work behind the scenes last year as one reason why the panel advanced eight of the 12 annual spending bills despite the chairman’s health issues.
Evans declined to comment for this story.
Much of the respect Cochran’s colleagues hold for him and his staff seems to stem from principles Cochran himself set for his office more than four decades ago.
“Everyone should guard against developing the attitude that we are better than, smarter than or more important than any constituent,” then-Rep. Cochran wrote in a 1975 memo to his staff obtained by Roll Call. “We do not hold a position of authority over any constituent. We are truly servants of the people who selected us.”
That memo is still provided to new staffers and referenced regularly, an aide said.
Next in line
Senators say they expect that Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama will take over at the helm of the committee should Cochran leave.
When asked, Shelby declined to comment.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said.
If Republicans maintain control of the Senate and Cochran stays, Shelby is next in line to take control of the panel after 2018, when Cochran is term-limited out as chairman.
For Cochran, the immediate hurdle is finishing up work on the fiscal 2018 omnibus. Congress faces a March 23 deadline, the expiration of the latest continuing resolution funding the government. That last stopgap spending bill included an agreement on budget spending caps for the next two years.
Cochran still has the full support of the top Democrat on the panel as well.
“I remember him sitting in the living room with my late parents in Montpelier, Vermont. We’ve traveled all over the world together. I’ve gone to Mississippi with him,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said. “He’s one of the closest friends I’ve had in the Senate.”
Cochran entered the Senate in 1978, making him one of the longest-serving senators in the chamber’s history. The onetime candidate for Senate majority leader — he lost out to his home-state colleague Trent Lott in 1996 when Bob Dole left to run for president — has also been chairman of the Agriculture Committee and the Senate Republican Conference.
But it is his time at the helm of the Appropriations Committee that has earned him the spotlight, both during a past stint as chairman from 2005 to 2006 and when he got the gavel back in 2015 after the GOP regained the majority.
Cochran is well known for using his position to direct federal funding back to Mississippi, a task made more difficult in recent years after earmarks were banned. But he has also maintained his conservative principles, at least when it comes to government spending.
“He is very much a southern gentleman, old school on civility, a very firm fiscal conservative,” former Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, who served as the top Democrat of the Appropriations Committee with Cochran, once said.
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Under Cochran’s leadership over the past three years, the committee has been successful in advancing the annual spending bills despite a heightened partisan rancor.
The panel approved all 12 yearly spending bills in 2015, the first time since 2009. That benchmark was met again in 2016, though in both years many of the bills did not make it past the Senate floor.
The challenge of following regular order for the fiscal 2019 spending bills is one that could be difficult to adhere to, despite the budget caps deal.
One GOP senator pointed to the thin margin on the panel — Republicans have 16 seats and Democrats have 15 — as a key reason for the chairman to make a strong commitment to moving the funding bills.
Following Cochran’s illness last year, the Appropriations Committee halted much of its work on the fiscal 2018 spending measures. The year ended with four of the bills not making it out of their respective subcommittees.
Aides pointed to several reasons for this, including the chamber’s focus on health care taxes last year. They also said the absence of a deal on the caps, which they now have, hurt things.
But armed with a budget deal for fiscal 2019, members are hopeful there will be a return to regular order — a big challenge for Cochran or whoever else helms the panel.
“That’s everybody’s hope,” said New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen, the top Democrat on the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, adding she has “not heard anything other than the rumors suggesting” that Cochran might step down.
“I think Chairman Cochran has been very interested in figuring out how to move the appropriations bill and to do it in a way that has bipartisan support, and I’ve really appreciated that,” she said.