McConnell Tries to Tamp Down Health Concerns after Second Incident

ABC Affiliate WCPO via REUTERS
Top U.S. Senate Republican Mitch McConnell appears to freeze up for more than 30 seconds during a public appearance before he was escorted away, the second such incident in a little more than a month, after an event with the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in Covington, Kentucky, U.S. August 30, 2023 in a still image from video.

WASHINGTON – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tried to tamp down concerns about his health on Thursday, a day after freezing while speaking in public for the second time in five weeks and again sparking questions about his physical condition and age.

Publicly, Republican senators remained supportive of McConnell and none has questioned whether the 81-year-old Senate stalwart should set a timeline for resigning his leadership post. But the public nature of Wednesday’s incident proved jarring again for senators, raising concerns about how their GOP leader was faring and prompting calls among some Republicans outside the Senate for McConnell to step down.

If Republicans grow dissatisfied with McConnell’s continued practice of keeping matters of his health private, they could request a special meeting of the Senate GOP conference to discuss it, needing just a handful of signatures to prompt such a conversation. So far no Republican has made that request, and privately senior aides think senators will want to see McConnell – and each other – in person next week before deciding whether such action is necessary.

With the Senate on its summer break until Tuesday, Republicans were scattered across the nation and globe when news of the McConnell incident broke. Unable to speak face-to-face with McConnell, they instead relied on phone calls and texts to talk with the leader and each other about the health episode.

Allies of McConnell continued to rally around the longest-serving Senate GOP leader in history.

“I talked to Senator McConnell yesterday and he seemed to be doing fine,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a McConnell confidant, told constituents at an event Thursday in Dallas. “We all wish him well.”

But even amid the support for McConnell, some Republicans felt that the incident was another indication that he should step aside.

Bob Barney, Republican Party chair in Jessamine County, Ky., told The Washington Post on Thursday that his chapter thinks McConnell should give up the leadership role. He said he thinks it is obvious that McConnell will not be reelected as leader, and that “will cause him to retire.”

“We’re all very disappointed that he didn’t let someone else take over as leader in 2022,” Barney said. “That would’ve been a wise decision at the time.”

Barney, whose county GOP voted to censure McConnell over his support for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the biggest piece of gun-control legislation passed by Congress in 30 years, said that the state’s Republican Party is “pretty much controlled by Mitch” and that he did not expect transparency on the senator’s health.

And Thursday afternoon, the influential conservative magazine National Review published an op-ed calling for McConnell to step down.

“Mitch McConnell is truly a legend of the U.S. Senate. . . . But the time has come for the Kentucky senator, after his long, impressive run, to make the decision to step aside from leadership,” it read.

Still, in Kentucky, many Republicans appeared ready to continue supporting McConnell.

Scott Jennings, a longtime adviser, said that he was with McConnell at Wednesday evening’s fundraiser for Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, who is running for a Senate seat, and that the senator seemed as if nothing unusual had happened earlier.

“I observed him up close and watched him, and it was business as usual,” Jennings said.

Jennings added that he sees McConnell frequently and has never witnessed the lawmaker freezing up outside the two times that are publicly known. Any conversations about whether McConnell is fit to continue serving, Jennings said, should be “between him and his physicians.”

Shane Noem, a member of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and chair of the Kenton County Republican Party who was part of the group that met with McConnell on Wednesday, said the state’s GOP is proud of McConnell’s leadership.

“It’s not every day you’re able to spend lunch with the most influential member of congress and the most consequential Kentuckian in history,” Noem said in an email to The Post. “Not only was he awarded the prestigious Community Award by the Chamber, but he gave extensive remarks that included some of his recent accomplishments followed by Q&A from the audience.”

On Wednesday, McConnell froze for more than 20 seconds while taking questions from reporters after an event in Covington, Ky. A spokesman for McConnell said afterward that the Republican leader “felt momentarily lightheaded and paused during his press conference.” Aides stepped up to help him, and eventually McConnell took additional questions.

The episode played out much like a July 26 incident in the Capitol in which he froze for about 20 seconds amid opening remarks at a weekly news conference. Colleagues ushered him away and he returned minutes later to take a few questions.

By midday Thursday, McConnell’s office took a letter from the attending physician of Congress and sent it to all Republican senators, as well as releasing it to the news media.

“I have consulted with Leader McConnell and conferred with his neurology team,” Brian P. Monahan, the attending physician, said in the statement. “After evaluating yesterday’s incident, I have informed Leader McConnell that he is medically clear to continue with his schedule as planned.”

Monahan added: “Occasional lightheadedness is not uncommon in concussion recovery and can also be expected as a result of dehydration.” He referred to an incident in early March in which McConnell fell and suffered a concussion and broken rib during a private dinner at a Washington hotel. He was absent from the Senate for nearly six weeks as he recovered from his injuries. He returned to work in April.

Monahan’s letter did not address the underlying cause of what has been a more than four-year struggle for McConnell with falling. Some of his falls were serious and resulted in injuries, while others were minor stumbles tied to balance issues.

McConnell, known for treating his health like a state secret, has never explained a situation in October 2020 when he appeared in the Capitol with bruised hands and a swollen lip. A few months after that, McConnell backed a Kentucky law that Republicans pushed through the legislature amending the process for appointing a new U.S. senator, guaranteeing that the governor – currently Democrat Andy Beshear – had to choose someone from the same party if a vacancy arises.

Three neurologists consulted by The Post said it is impossible to diagnose a patient through brief video clips, but the two similar episodes hinted at a few possible explanations, including localized seizures or a temporary drop in blood pressure. They said a complete medical examination and testing, including brain scans, would be needed to diagnose the problem.

“If a person came to my office and showed me a video like this, where they were speaking normally and then had a speech arrest that lasted for 15 to 20 seconds, up to a couple of minutes, I would be strongly suspicious of a seizure,” said Dane Michael Chetkovich, chief of neurology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He noted that McConnell’s eyes seemed forced to the right during the episode, which could be a sign of a seizure on the left side of his brain, where language functions are rooted.

W. Taylor Kimberly, chief of the division of neurocritical care at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that a heart specialist should also evaluate McConnell, because a drop in blood pressure that causes a near-fainting episode might also explain the two spells.

All cautioned that a diagnosis might be difficult, even with follow-up testing. McConnell’s polio in childhood could contribute to his difficulty walking and increase his risk for falls, though people’s gaits also can deteriorate with advanced age.

McConnell is not the only senator whose recent health issues have drawn national interest and calls for their retirement.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who at 90 is the oldest member of the Senate, was absent from the chamber for two months this year because of shingles. Although she returned to the Capitol in May after recovering from encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that can be a dangerous complication of shingles, she has made headlines since for occasionally appearing confused during official business. Some congressional Democrats – including members of the California delegation – have asked that she step down. Feinstein has refused to do so, but she has said she will not run for reelection in 2024.