Jul 19, 2023

Mitch McConnell cleared for work by congressional doctor after freezing

Physician says 81-year-old Senate Republican leader is ‘medically clear’ to continue with schedule after second freezing episode

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the US Senate, was given a clean bill of health by the congressional physician, a day after freezing in front of reporters for the second time in a month.

In a short statement, the physician, Brian P Monahan, said he had consulted with McConnell and told him “he is medically clear to continue with his schedule as planned”.

At the same time, however, it was reported that a “handful” of Republican senators were weighing an attempt to force the party to confront the issue of their 81-year-old leader’s uncertain health and ability to fulfill the role.

In Covington, Kentucky, on Wednesday, McConnell appeared to freeze during questions from reporters. He was eventually escorted away. It followed a similar incident in Washington in July, at the US Capitol. McConnell then returned to resume the session, saying he had been “sandbagged” – a reference to a fall suffered by Joe Biden at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado in May.

Four months previously, in March, McConnell fell himself, sustaining a concussion and a rib injury that kept him away from Congress. After his first freeze, other falls were reported.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for McConnell said the senator had felt lightheaded and would consult a doctor. On Thursday, Monahan said: “Occasional lightheadedness is not uncommon in concussion recovery and can also be expected as a result of dehydration.”

But with the health of ageing politicians increasingly at issue in Washington – also over reports of Biden, 80, feeling “tired” and the California Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein appearing confused at 90 – McConnell’s health remains in the spotlight.

Polling shows majorities of voters believe many politicians stay in their jobs too long. More than half support maximum age limits for elected officials.

Frank Luntz, a leading Republican pollster, told CNN: “It’s one of the problems that we have with Washington, which is that there is a time to lead and a time to pass on the torch to another generation.”

Calling the response by McConnell’s office to his Wednesday freeze “insufficient”, Luntz added: “I understand why the public is saying about some of these people – give somebody else the chance to do the job.”

Three Johns – Thune of South Dakota, Cornyn of Texas and Barrasso of Wyoming – are in line to contest the Republican succession when McConnell does step down. All have avoided stoking speculation. Thune is 62, Cornyn and Barrasso both 71.

On Wednesday, it was widely reported that McConnell had sought to reassure those three and other Republican senators about his fitness to lead to the end of his seventh six-year term, in 2026.

A Thune aide told news outlets McConnell “sounded like himself and was in good spirits”. Jim Banks, a House Republican running for Senate in Indiana, posted a photo with McConnell, saying they “enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion” that evening. Banks told Axios: “He was engaging. Very dialed in on my race and following closely.”

The next day, Politico reported the discussions among Republicans about whether to move to confront the issue of McConnell’s health. But the only senator who was quoted, speaking anonymously, predicted any attempt to move McConnell aside would fail, just as a direct challenge from Rick Scott of Florida failed conclusively last year.

“If a handful goes down that path, it will be a rerun of the last time,” the unnamed senator was quoted as saying.

Scott told CBS News: “I expect [McConnell will] continue to be the Republican leader through this term … We’ll have another election after the 2024 elections.”

Elected in 1984, McConnell is the longest-serving party leader in Senate history, having taken charge of the minority in 2007. As majority leader, between 2015 and 2021, he presided over a radical reshaping of the federal judiciary, stocking lower courts with conservatives and installing three rightwingers on the supreme court.

Memorably, McConnell described himself as “stronger than mule piss” in support of Brett Kavanaugh, the second of those supreme court justices whose confirmation was rocked by allegations of sexual assault.

Despite McConnell’s long record as a ruthless political warrior, he has maintained at least superficially friendly relations with Joe Biden, who sat alongside him for 23 years as a senator from Delaware.

On Thursday, Biden told reporters: “I spoke to him today. He was his old self on the telephone.”

The president, who suffered two brain aneurysms in 1988, added: “It’s not at all unusual to have the response that sometimes happens to Mitch when you’ve had a severe concussion. It’s part of the recovery. I’m confident he’ll be back to his old self.”