Lautenberg aide: Resignation chatter 'ridiculous'

WASHINGTON – New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who has not cast a Senate vote since Feb. 28, is expected to miss at least another week in Washington, but a spokesman today called chatter about a possible resignation “ridiculous.”

“Rumors about him resigning early are ridiculous. He’s not resigning before his term ends in Jan. 2015,” Lautenberg aide Caley Gray wrote in an e-mail Monday.

Still, the long-serving Democrat is back in the news for missing votes due to an illness. This being Washington, and Lautenberg having also missed time in the winter because he was sick then, media speculation is already building around whether Lautenberg will finish his term, or if he will be forced to leave, costing Democrats a seat in a chamber where they have only a five-vote majority.

“I regret that I will not be returning to Washington next week as I continue treatment for, and recuperate from, muscle weakness and fatigue. My physician continues to advise me to work from home and not travel at this time,” Lautenberg said in a release issued Friday.

Lautenberg, 89, has been absent from Washington for more than a month due to what has previously been described as leg pain. He also missed a stretch of votes in December and early January because of a bout with the flu and bronchitis. He recently announced that he would not seek re-election next year.

Lautenberg’s absence comes as Democrats, with just a 55-45 vote edge in the Senate (counting Maine independent Angus King), prepare to take up major legislation on immigration reform and gun control – the very issue Lautenberg has long fought for and said he would concentrate on when he announced his resignation.

“I am disappointed I will not be present for the opening of the debate on gun legislation in the Senate. It is an issue I am deeply passionate about, and my victories over the gun lobby are among my proudest accomplishments,” Lautenberg’s statement said.

If Lautenberg was forced to leave the senate, Democrats would almost certainly lose a vote in the closely-contested chamber, chipping away at their ability to advance President Obama’s priorities.

New Jersey Gov. Christie would appoint Lautenberg’s replacement, giving Republicans a chance to take the safe Democratic seat.

If Lautenberg were to resign, the timing would be critical. If he leaves before Aug. 27, there would be an election in November to replace him – meaning that a GOP replacement would only hold the seat for a few months before Democrats got a chance to take it back in a state where they typically dominate statewide campaigns.

But if Lautenberg resigned after that date, the election wouldn’t come until 2014. That means that a Republican fill-in could have more than a year to both affect the balance in the senate and build up his or her name recognition for a 2014 campaign.

(New Jersey Democrats are well aware of the date. Many were doing their due diligence after the recent scandal around Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez first broke, though that concern seems to have died down).

Gray, Lautenberg’s spokesman, attempted to put to rest any rumors about the senator on Monday. 

“The senator will be out this week and back as soon as his doctor clears him,” Gray wrote.