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The 'Age Issue' in the Senate

Capitol Briefing alumnus Paul Kane writes in this morning's Post that just as Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) age has already become an issue in the presidential campaign, so too has age become a key topic in today's New Jersey Democratic Senate primary, where 84-year-old Sen. Frank Lautenberg is trying to fend off a challenge from a younger upstart, Rep. Rob Andrews.

Lautenberg is expected to win. But his campaign -- as well as the health problems of Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) -- remind us that "the age issue" is never far from the forefront in the Senate.

Senators tend to be richer, whiter and better educated than the average American, and the Senate is unlike the typical workplace in another respect -- age. The Congressional Research Service says the current Congress is "possibly the oldest" of any in U.S. history, and the average age in the Senate is 62. Lautenberg is one of 11 Senators who are over 75, and one of 26 who are at least 70. How many other offices do you know of where more than a quarter of the workers are over 70? And while many of the older senators are in remarkably good condition, especially considering the often grueling schedules and travel regimens they maintain, several of them have either encountered health problems or had their effectiveness questioned in recent years:

• Byrd, 90, was admitted to the hospital last night for observation after suffering a high fever. This is his third hospitalization of the year, and some colleagues have privately wondered whether he is still up to chairing the Appropriations Committee.

• Kennedy, 76, had surgery yesterday to remove a large portion of a malignant brain tumor. He will now undergo radiation treatment and chemotherapy, and his return to the Senate remains uncertain.

• Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), 78, is also receiving chemotherapy after a recurrence of Hodgkin's disease.

• Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), 76, is retiring as he grapples with a degenerative brain disease.

• Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), 81, is also retiring, and has been treated for an abnormal heartbeat.

• Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), 83, faced a primary challenge in 2006 similar to the one Lautenberg faces today. Akaka managed to hold off then-Rep. Ed Case, whose campaign was partly based on the need for fresh blood and a new face representing the state in the Senate.

Other older Senators have faced similar challenges. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), now 76, had to deal with questions about his age and overall job performance in a tough re-election fight in 2004. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), 84, has a difficult battle ahead this November, though his predicament has more to do with allegations of corruption than with questions about his age.

Particularly on days like yesterday, it can seem like the Senate is beset with an unusually large number of medical emergencies. But there's no evidence that older Senators are any more susceptible to health problems than other Americans of similar vintage. The difference is that most Americans live private lives, and most retire by the time they hit 70 (and definitely by the time they hit 90, as Byrd has and Lautenberg will by the end of his next term). Senators have chosen a profession that's in the public eye, and that makes their age, medical condition and overall fitness for office a constantly relevant -- albeit sometimes uncomfortable -- topic of discussion.

By Ben Pershing  |  June 3, 2008; 12:05 PM ET
Categories:  2008 Campaign , Senate  
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