McConnell’s health becomes bigger problem for GOP
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) health is becoming a bigger problem for his Senate Republican conference, though GOP colleagues say his job as leader is safe for now.
McConnell’s struggles to answer questions at press conferences in Kentucky and Washington in recent weeks has stirred speculation about whether he is healthy enough to continue serving as leader through the election or in the next Congress, when Senate Republicans may be back in the majority.
The GOP leadership team rallied around him Tuesday and pledged to support him through the end of 2024, but there are growing questions about whether McConnell would remain leader if Republicans take back the majority in the next election.
McConnell’s fellow GOP home-state senator, Rand Paul, even told reporters he wasn’t sure doctors had provided a “valid diagnosis” of his condition.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2-ranking member of the Senate GOP leadership, said McConnell has his full support to continue serving as leader — something echoed by other GOP senators — but declined to speculate about McConnell’s future beyond the next election.
Thune said he “a couple of conversations” with McConnell this week and that the 81-year-old Senate GOP leader “sounded great.”
He said McConnell “will have an opportunity to address colleagues” about his health and other issues at lunch later in the week.
Asked about McConnell remaining leader beyond next year’s election, Thune said, “That’s so far out there I don’t even want to start speculating about that, but he has my full support and he’ll have the support of the conference.”
McConnell sought to tamp down speculation about his health Tuesday by circulating a letter from the Capitol physician, Dr. Brian Monahan, stating that medical experts found no evidence of the leader suffering from a seizure disorder, stroke or Parkinson’s disease.
Republican senators praised the medical disclosure as an important step to providing more transparency about McConnell’s health issues.
“He told me he had been cleared by Dr. Monahan, and then of course I saw the letter that was released this morning following more extensive testing, and I’m glad that they were able to rule out some of the things that people had speculated might have happened,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of McConnell’s leadership team.
The Texas senator, who along with Thune is viewed as one of the leading candidates to someday replace McConnell as leader, suggested McConnell’s health incidents before cameras were likely related to the concussion he suffered in March after falling at a private dinner event.
“It appears that it’s harder to recover from a concussion when you’re 81 years old than maybe he thought. But he feels like he’s up to the task, and I think that’s the case,” Cornyn said.
McConnell first froze up before television cameras at a press conference July 26, creating several minutes of awkwardness as members of his leadership team and staff scrambled to move him away from the podium.
Another health incident in the months ahead will inevitably raise more questions about McConnell’s ability to continue serving as leader.
His frail appearance is already raising doubts among some disgruntled Senate GOP colleagues about whether he’s the best face of the Republican effort to take back the Senate and usher in a new era of leadership in Washington.
Some of McConnell’s critics within the conference have discussed forcing a special meeting to discuss his health, something they could do with just five votes.
Thune and Cornyn both dismissed the need to do so, pointing out that GOP senators will have plenty of opportunity to ask questions at the regularly scheduled lunch meetings Wednesday and Thursday.
“I know Sen. McConnell wants to be more transparent about this, and that’s my understanding why the letter was released today,” Cornyn said. “I think that’s actually a good thing because the human mind can wander and speculate about all sorts of things.”
Asked whether McConnell would have enough support to serve as leader after the 2024 election, Cornyn said: “I’ve told Sen. McConnell I’m going to support him as long as he wants to do the job and can do the job.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a doctor, said any effort to remove McConnell as leader in the current Congress “won’t go very far.”
Monahan, the attending physician, did not recommend any changes to the “treatment protocols” McConnell has followed since falling and suffering a concussion and a fractured rib in March.
Before Tuesday, McConnell had only commented tersely on his health, telling reporters last month “I’m fine” when asked whether he was still suffering the effects of his concussion.
McConnell called members of his leadership team last week after he again froze during a press conference in Covington, Ky.
He phoned Thune, who is seen as McConnell’s most likely successor if he can’t finish his term as leader because of health reasons, as well as Cornyn, Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) and Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.).
“I’m really happy to see that the MRI was normal, to see that the EEG was normal, that he’s had neurologic evaluations. The report put out today by Dr. Monahan was very encouraging and very good,” Barrasso told reporters.
Barrasso said he thinks McConnell has support to stay leader through the current Congress, which lasts until January 2025, but didn’t answer a question about McConnell again leading the conference in the 119th Congress.
McConnell on Tuesday briefly alluded to his difficulty in responding to a reporter’s question at a press conference last month as a blip in an otherwise productive month of work across his home state.
“Now, one particular moment of my time back home has received its fair share of attention in the press over the past week, but I assure you August was a busy and productive month for me and my staff back in the commonwealth,” he said on the Senate floor.
No Republican senator has publicly called for McConnell to step down as party leader, and his health problems have received little comment from House GOP lawmakers.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) was the glaring exception last week when she declared the senior Kentucky senator is “not fit for office.”
The National Review, an influential conservative periodical, last week praised McConnell in an editorial as “truly a legend of the U.S. Senate” but nevertheless opined he “needs to step aside.”
The magazine said his health incidents in front of the media were “not normal” and “affects his ability to function as the leading representative of his caucus.”
Al Weaver contributed.