Mitch McConnell’s sudden freeze during a Wednesday afternoon press conference jolted the Senate Republican Conference, eliciting hopes from allies, detractors that he will fully recover from any health issues.
And President Joe Biden even called his old senatorial colleague to check on him.
“I told him I got sandbagged,” McConnell said, a reference to Biden’s public fall over a sandbag earlier this year. “I’m fine. I’m fine, that’s the important part. Got to watch those sandbags.”
The Senate minority leader abruptly stopped his opening remarks at an afternoon press conference on Wednesday, causing alarm when he left for a few minutes and then returned to answer questions. A McConnell aide said the senator was feeling light-headed. McConnell returned to the press conference and took questions from reporters.
“My prayers are with him. That obviously was concerning. I hope it was just a momentary issue and that he’s doing better,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has tangled politically with McConnell for a decade. “Mitch is strong as hell and stubborn as a mule. I have every hope that he will fight back from any health issues and fully recover.”
The Senate minority leader only got through a few words of his speech about the chamber’s annual defense bill, then trailed off and stared straight ahead for a few seconds as his fellow senators asked if he was OK. A few minutes later, his office provided a brief explanation of what happened, though it’s not clear if McConnell received any medical treatment.
“I just hope he’s doing OK. We really all hope he’s doing OK,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who was next to McConnell during the press event. “I was just concerned, I want to make sure everybody is well.”
McConnell, 81, suffered a concussion in March following a fall and returned to his duties in April. He has since gone about his job as usual, though he has occasionally struggled to hear reporters’ questions at weekly press availabilities.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy met with McConnell later on Wednesday afternoon. Asked if he was concerned about McConnell’s health, he replied: “No, and this was after the incident.” Cruz said that he has seen “no indication” internally that McConnell is not able to perform all his job duties.
It’s a sentiment shared across the Republican Conference.
“Something happened. It looks like he had about 20 seconds there … his staff indicated that he felt a little lightheaded, that’s happened to all of us,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “Mitch has been fine, same old self. He did have a concussion and a concussion will put you down, but he’s been fine. Whatever happened, he’ll explain it.”
During the press conference, the GOP leader waved off a subsequent question regarding who would succeed him in leading the conference. McConnell has served as head of the Senate GOP since 2007 and faced his first challenge last fall, handily defeating Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).
Cruz opposed McConnell during that race and on Wednesday declined to weigh in on who might succeed the GOP leader.
“I understand he was a little lightheaded, but returned to answer questions. So I have no reason to believe he’s not doing well,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former whip who has expressed interest in at some point being GOP leader. “I’m not going to head down that road. I’ll support Sen. McConnell as long as he wants to continue to serve.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who works closely with McConnell, said he wished the minority leader well.
After returning to Wednesday’s press conference, the Kentucky Republican took questions on topics ranging from congressional spending to Hunter Biden to the possibility of the GOP House impeaching President Joe Biden. He said he was “not surprised” House Republicans would look at impeaching Biden after former President Donald Trump was twice impeached.
“We had not one but two impeachments, and once we go down this path, it incentivizes the other side to do the same thing,” McConnell said. “This is not good for the country. To have repeated impeachment problems.”
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), another possible successor to McConnell, said McConnell has “made a remarkable recovery, he’s doing a great job leading our conference.”
“He was able to answer every question that the press asked him today,” Barrasso added. “And you may note, he answered more questions than he normally does.”
Jordain Carney, Katherine Tully McManus and Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.