During a decade in national politics, Claire McCaskill has been a trailblazer several times. In 2006, she was the first woman elected to the Senate from Missouri. In 2008, the first senator to back Barack Obama for president. In 2012, the biggest upset winner among the many Democratic incumbents challenged by tea party Republicans. And almost three years ago, the first in Congress to endorse Hillary Clinton well before she started this presidential campaign.
This week McCaskill stood apart again, becoming the first senator to announce she has breast cancer.
True to her reputation as one of the most social-media-savvy senators, she revealed her diagnosis on Tumblr. “It’s a little scary, but my prognosis is good and I expect a full recovery,” her post said.
More importantly — for combating the work-shirking reputation of Congress as well as the lingering cultural sexism about women in power — McCaskill made commitments about her life’s next phase that are quite different from how many lawmakers behave in the face of personal challenges. During the next three weeks, the amount of time she said she would be in St. Louis for a course of treatment she didn’t specify, “I will be posting on my Senate website (McCaskill.senate.gov) how I would have voted on any matters that come before the Senate during my absence — which I’ll also enter into the Congressional Record. Additionally, I’ll be submitting questions in writing for any missed Senate hearings.”
Those will not be easy pledges to keep. If legislating of any consequence is going to get done this election year, much of the groundwork will necessarily be done in the coming month. McCaskill is the ranking member of the Select Committee on Aging and among the three most senior Democrats on the Armed Services, Commerce, and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panels. Rooting out government waste and wrongdoers, fiscal moderation and curbing sexual assault on campuses and in the military are her most high-profile legislative priorities.
Plenty of other members have to miss work at the Capitol for decent stretches because of health problems. But not all of them are as candid as McCaskill in explaining to constituents what’s going on, and even fewer of them make such explicit promises about keeping up with their obligations to the taxpayers while away on medical leave.
Last summer a pair of senators, 72-year-old Maine independent Angus King and 74-year-old Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, announced they were having surgery for prostate cancer but then disappeared altogether from the congressional workflow for a couple of weeks. (Both returned to say they’re fully recovered and plan to run for new terms in 2018, when McCaskill will turn 65 and is also up for re-election.)
To be sure, sometimes senators are gone for even longer stretches because they’re in such bad shape that attending to any part of their day jobs is out of the question. Most recently, Republican Mark S. Kirk of Illinois was gone for all of 2012 after suffering a massive stroke at age 53, while Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota was gone for nine months of 2007 after severe bleeding on his brain from a congenital defect. (Kirk is running for his second term now; Johnson retired two years ago.)
The House members with the worst 2015 attendance records, Democrats Donald M. Payne Jr. of New Jersey, 57, and Rubén Hinojosa of Texas, 75, both had orthopedic surgery last year but declined to be any more specific when asked why they each missed almost a quarter of the floor votes in a year when the typical member was on hand 97 percent of the time.
McCaskill used her announcement as a teachable moment about the virtues of preventative medicine and early detection. “I very recently learned that I have breast cancer,” she said. “It was detected through a regular mammogram.”
In that regard, the senator is taking a different approach than the other prominent member who’s confronted breast cancer. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida discovered a lump during a self-examination when she was 42, during her second House term. But she kept her diagnosis under wraps for more than year while running for re-election in 2008, raising millions for the national Democratic Party and undergoing seven surgeries, arranged at military hospitals in the Washington area during congressional recesses.
(The secrecy, Wasserman Schultz has said, was partly to shield her kids from worry and partly to prevent her illness from dominating her political narrative until she could put it to use. She’s done so by winning a provision in the 2010 health law promoting education of young women about breast cancer’s risks and starting a proceeds-for-research summer softball game pitting women members of Congress against female journalists. )
Wasserman Shultz’s approach is a reminder of how members frequently harness their personal experiences in the service of their professional lives. Whether she says so or not, the same opportunity will probably present itself to McCaskill now.
Making good on her vow to keep as current as possible in her Senate work would likely generate palpable goodwill in the coming year, as she starts what’s sure to become a competitive race for her third term. Much sooner, the end of her treatment looks to coincide with the final days before the presidential primary in Missouri — where a boost from an on-the-mend surrogate could be just the thing to boost the Democratic front-runner and make her even more grateful for McCaskill’s support this time around.
“If ever cancer picked the wrong person to mess with, it's you,” Clinton said in a Tweet to the senator on Monday. “Stay strong and take care of yourself. I'm in your corner.”
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