Concerns about New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg's health pose yet another challenge for Democrats struggling to retain control of the Senate.
Lautenberg's announcement Friday that he's suffering from stomach lymphoma and will receive treatment over the next few months could complicate matters for Democrats as they seek to muster enough votes to overcome Republican delaying tactics over jobs, health care and more.
Even before his illness, Democrats had lost their 60-vote supermajority when Republican Scott Brown won the special election to replace the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy. That deprived them of the numbers needed to head off any GOP filibuster. Now, they're staring at the possibility of further erosion -- and momentum gained by newly emboldened Republicans -- going into the midterm elections.
Indiana Democrat Even Bayh is planning to step down, a surprise decision that followed a flurry of other Democratic retirements, including Sen. Christopher Dodd in Connecticut. In Delaware, Vice President Joe Biden's son decided against a Senate run, boosting Republican hopes to take over the seat Biden held for 36 years. In Illinois, Republicans like their chances in trying to win President Barack Obama's old Senate seat. That's now held by Democrat Roland Burris, who was appointed by a scandal-tainted governor and has decided not to seek a full term.
If Lautenberg, 86, has to miss multiple votes for health reasons, Democrats could struggle to fill the void. A first test could come Monday when a vote is expected on a Democratic jobs bill. A Lautenberg spokesman said Friday the senator would miss the vote.
"It's one less vote, simple math," said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego. "It just makes it a little harder."
The nation's second-oldest senator is expected to return to work between treatments. Lautenberg is to undergo six to eight chemotherapy treatments and should make a full recovery, his doctor said.
Despite his doctor's hopeful words, news of Lautenberg's diagnosis shook Democrats. To get much done, they need to secure Republican votes and they haven't had much luck winning over moderate Republicans like Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.
"The stars are not lining up for the Democrats these days," said Jacobson. "It portends a continuing stalemate in which the Republicans think their best strategy is to just block everything and to hope that they pick up a lot of seats in 2010."
Any decline in Lautenberg's recovery would be a serious concern for Democrats in New Jersey as well.
Republicans there won control of the governor's office in November. If Lautenberg were unable to finish his term, Gov. Chris Christie would appoint an interim successor. That could give a Republican candidate the added advantage of incumbency in an already favorable environment for the GOP.
New Jersey Democrats failed to advance legislation to take the interim appointment power away from Christie. The legislation was introduced during the lame-duck session with Lautenberg in mind.
Lautenberg is not up for re-election until 2014.