Sen. Thad Cochran, at right, a Mississippi Republican, arrives for the formal artist's dinner for the Kennedy Center Honors at the United States Department of State December 4, 2010 in Washington.

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Sen. Thad Cochran has faced questions about his health due to medical issues

Asked if he's fit for office, he responded, "I think so. I'm a candidate for re-election."

CNN  — 

Sen. Thad Cochran, the 79-year-old Mississippi Republican, said Thursday he is doing fine and plans to run again in 2020 despite nagging health problems that have kept him away from the Senate in recent weeks and questions about his mental fitness in recent years.

Cochran spoke briefly off-camera to reporters as he entered the Capitol Thursday for votes. He looked frail, pale, moved slowly and was soft-spoken.

Asked directly if he is fit enough – physically and mentally – to remain in the Senate and as chairman of the powerful appropriations committee, a demanding job overseeing and approving all federal spending, Cochran said he thinks he is.

“It’s up for the people to decide,” he responded. “I think I am.”

As Cochran walked into the Capitol, he stepped through a metal detector – something he is not required to do and hasn’t been in his nearly 40 years in Congress. He was then guided by several staffers to a “senators only” elevator to go up to the floor.

The seven-term senator has been out ill for the last several weeks with recurring urinary tract infections. UTIs can cause “mental changes or confusion” in older people, according the US National Library of Medicine.

He returned to Washington this week to cast critical votes on a budget that must pass for Republicans to advance tax reform. His presence was considered crucial because there were doubts Republicans have the votes to pass the budget and the GOP can only afford to lose two Republicans and have it still pass.

President Donald Trump said he has “such respect for him because he’s not feeling great.”

Cochran was asked again if he thinks he can handle the job as head of the committee. He answered, “I think so. I’m a candidate for re-election.”

Pressed to confirm that, in fact, he plans to run again in three years, Cochran did not respond and the doors to the elevator closed.

The Senate has many older senators who benefit from the seniority system in the chamber, serving as committee chairs well into their 80s.

Reporters’ conversations with Cochran have become less and less productive in recent years, as detailed conversations with him about the complicated issues before his committee seemed to have waned. On some occasions, he answers questions directly but often his answers are generic and so general as to be basically off-point. A story in Politico earlier this week described Cochran as “frail and at times disoriented” and described an incident where Cochran voted “yes” on an amendment for which he was supposed to vote “no.”

In fact, Cochran has asked reporters for directions to rooms in the Capitol that he’s been to many times.

He still chairs the committee hearings and markups although with heavy input from staff members at his side.

“Senator Cochran is staying here through the foreseeable future,” said his spokesman Chris Gallegos. “As he indicated yesterday, he has no plans to retire or step down as appropriations chairman.”

Longtime Senate aides, who observe Cochran regularly, note privately that the senator seems to have slowed down mentally in recent years but they acknowledge it’s difficult to tell to what degree.

Cochran was re-elected in 2014 after a bitter primary where he faced a candidate from the right. If he were to leave his seat early, it could leave the seat open to another anti-establishment Republican.

CNN’s Phil Mattingly, Deirdre Walsh, Michael Nedelman, and Debra Goldschmidt contributed to this report.