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Illness sidelines McCain, Cochran as tax vote nears

FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2017, file photo, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., questions Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Senate Republicans rushed toward votes next week on their sweeping $1.5 trillion tax package, hopeful ailing Sens. John McCain and Thad Cochran will be back and well enough to cast their votes.

The 81-year-old McCain is at a local military hospital being treated for the side effects of brain cancer treatment. The 80-year-old Cochran had a non-melanoma lesion removed from his nose earlier this week.

Both men missed all Senate votes this week, but their presence will be crucial early next week as the GOP tries to pass the tax bill in the Senate with a razor-thin Republican majority of 52-48 — and all Democrats opposed to the legislation. Adding to the uncertainty on Thursday was Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who said he would vote against the bill if negotiators failed to expand the child tax credit.

"My expectation is he'll be here," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said of McCain. "He's resting up and so we hope to see him then."

A Senate Armed Services Committee hearing opened Thursday without McCain in the chairman's seat and members of the panel unsure when he'd return to Congress.

McCain's closest friend on Capitol Hill, Sen. Lindsey Graham, told reporters that he spoke with McCain's wife Cindy earlier in the week and said he was optimistic McCain would be back to work soon. But he dismissed the idea McCain should rush his recovery to vote on the GOP tax bill even though the margin for passage of the legislation in the Senate is expected to be slim.

"John, take a little time, rest up. It's OK to take a day or two off," Graham said.

McCain didn't attend a White House ceremony held Tuesday for President Donald Trump to sign the annual defense bill into law. The sweeping policy measure has been a major achievement of McCain's for years.

His office said late Wednesday that the senator is at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland receiving treatment for the "normal side effects of his ongoing cancer therapy." He looks forward to returning to work as soon as possible, the statement added.

Now in his sixth Senate term, McCain underwent surgery in mid-July to remove a 2-inch (51-millimeter) blood clot in his brain after being diagnosed with an aggressive tumor called a glioblastoma. It's the same type of tumor that killed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy at age 77 in 2009 and Beau Biden, son of then-Vice President Joe Biden, at 46 in 2015.

McCain rebounded quickly, however, returning to Washington and entering the Senate on July 25 to a standing ovation from his colleagues. In a dramatic turn, he cast a deciding vote against the Republican health care bill, earning the wrath of Trump and other conservatives.

But McCain's condition has appeared to worsen lately. He suffered a minor tear in his right Achilles tendon, forcing him to wear a walking brace. McCain eventually began using a wheelchair with members of his staff pushing him where he needed to go.

Brain tumors and their treatments can cause an array of side effects, including fatigue, cognitive changes, and mood changes, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.

"I feel pretty good about the way the treatment's affecting his underlying cancer, but the treatment has a downside," Graham said.

Other members of the Armed Services Committee said they hadn't talked to McCain recently and didn't know when he'd be back. But they described him as a fighter who'd be able to beat the odds.

"With Senator McCain, he could show up at any time and just say, 'If we've got work to do I'm going to be there,'" said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. "That's his style."

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