WASHINGTON -- As Senate Democrats try to pass a $60 billion bill for Sandy relief and beat back hostile Republican amendments, New Jersey is missing one vote: Sen. Frank Lautenberg's.
The Democrat has not returned to Washington after the Senate's Christmas break, leaving Democrats with just a 52-47 edge. Working in their favor, though, is that any amendment to the bill requires 60 votes.
"Sen. Lautenberg is at home recovering from the flu and the Capitol physician advised him to continue resting and not return to the Capitol to vote unless absolutely necessary," said Lautenberg spokesman Caley Gray.
Lautenberg's absence could resonate on two levels. Immediately, there is the fact that he is not here for a key vote to the region. He has missed several recent votes: he did not vote on Dec. 11 and 13, and then again on the 27th and today. With today's absence, that means Lautenberg has missed votes on four of the last five days that the Senate has had roll call votes.
Lautenberg was in Washington for a Dec. 21 cloture vote on the Sandy relief bill, helping it clear a key procedural hurdle.
The bigger picture, though, is that Lautenberg, who turns 89 in January, is already facing whispers about his ability to serve another term. This absence on an important vote for the region could add fuel to a critique that is quietly, but not subtly, being raised by potential opponents in 2014.
Last week two Democratic sources on Capitol Hill told the Inquirer that Lautenberg had missed previous votes and a tour of storm-ravaged areas due to illnesses. Both stressed that the situation was not dire. One said Lautenberg had a bout of bronchitis and then the flu. 
Even as the debate on gun control heated up, Lautenberg made no public speeches or appearances, despite having long advocated for tougher gun laws. His statements on the issue were limited to press releases.