Mitch McConnell is moving as fast as he can to get beyond questions about whether his health will hurt his ability to lead Senate Republicans.
Within hours of the Senate’s return Tuesday, the GOP leader’s office released a letter from the Capitol physician with more details clearing him for work after last week’s on-camera freeze, his second this summer. McConnell then delivered a floor speech mostly focused on the Senate’s task ahead in funding the government, and after huddled with his leadership team for a meeting on the fall agenda.
It reflected a pointed effort to project business as usual during a crucial 12-hour period for McConnell, 81, who faces lingering questions both inside and outside the Capitol about his health and his grip over a fractious 49-member conference. He’ll face a tougher crowd Wednesday, when the entire Senate GOP gathers for its first meeting since July.
“He was ready to go through the agenda, did an extraordinary job. Any time somebody experiences head trauma, … you’re going to have challenges,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who attended the leadership meeting Tuesday. “As somebody that speaks with and works with this person pretty frequently, … he’s still on his game mentally.”
As for whether McConnell still faces the possibility of another fight to retain his leadership position, Tillis replied: “He’s got a very small group of people that would even ask the question. Maybe a handful.”
After McConnell suffered a concussion following a March fall, his critics — largely on the party’s right flank — stayed quiet. But the July and August public freezes prompted more of them to mull further action in the form of a larger discussion about their leader’s ability to man the helm, as well as the GOP’s broader future.
That effort hasn’t materialized yet, but he still faces unrest within his conference.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said, “My advice would be to be more forthcoming with what’s going on.” In particular, Paul scoffed at a letter released last week from Capitol physician Brian Monahan which suggested that McConnell may have frozen up because he was lightheaded or dehydrated.
“I don’t think it’s been particularly helpful to have the Senate doctor describe it as dehydration — which I think even non-physicians seeing that, probably aren’t really accepting that explanation,” said Paul, an ophthalmologist. “What’s occurring from what I’ve seen, it’s a neurological event.”
Paul is one of the few senators who did not disclose how he voted in last year’s leadership race between McConnell and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.). But Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who publicly opposed McConnell, said he heard a “lot of questions” about the leader’s future back home over the recess.
“I’m concerned about it. I’m concerned about his health, just like I’m concerned about the president’s health,” Hawley said. As for McConnell’s future leading the conference, Hawley said: “I didn’t vote for him. So my views on this are kind of well-known.”
Still, McConnell’s skeptics have stayed relatively low-key in public so far. No one has made a move — not yet, at least — to force a special conference meeting on the leader.
All of the “three Johns” who might vie to take the reins from the Kentuckian told reporters they want to see McConnell continue on.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the minority whip, said McConnell “has my full support, and he’ll have the, I think, support of the conference.” Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and John Barrasso of Wyoming, the latter of whom serves as conference chair, echoed that sentiment.
“The only person in the Milky Way that can make Mitch quit is Mitch,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said. “And knowing him as I do, I think that’ll happen right about the time donkeys fly.”
Asked about the leader’s capacity to keep going, Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who voted for Scott last year, said that in the coming weeks, “everyone will know if it’s working or not.” Braun made a point to describe his beef with McConnell’s leadership as focused on policy, not the leader’s mental and physical capacity to do the job.
“That’ll be self-evident at the time, if there are more instances. In the meantime, he’s been cleared. He’s tough, we’ll see what happens,” Braun said. “That’ll all unfold. I think it will be apparent to him and us. I’m going to watch and observe.”
Tuesday’s leadership meeting came hours after the Capitol’s top doctor told McConnell that “there is no evidence” he suffered a stroke or has a seizure disorder following his public freeze in Kentucky last week. Monahan made that conclusion after evaluating “brain MRI imaging, EEG study and consultations with several neurologists for a comprehensive neurology assessment.”
Many Senate Republicans cited Monahan’s letter as evidence both of McConnell’s openness regarding his health — a subject McConnell himself hasn’t yet fully addressed — and a sign that he is up to the task at hand.
“A little transparency goes a long way. So I think it’s important to have that information, ruling out things that were speculated,” Cornyn said. “He feels good; he feels like he’s up to his job. But for these two episodes, which have obviously rattled everybody, it’s just taking longer than he anticipated to recover from a concussion.”
In his typical style, McConnell avoided any offhanded remarks to the gaggle of reporters camped outside his office Tuesday. When he entered the Senate earlier in the day, he took a rarely used door to get to his office.
And during his first floor speech since July, he made only an offhand reference to his 30-second freeze in Kentucky last week. “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,” McConnell said.
But it’s fair to say that his health dominated the Senate’s return, even among Democrats. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he was “glad to see him back and doing well,” while Majority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin said he was eager to see McConnell because “I couldn’t wait to disagree with him.”
Durbin watched McConnell’s speech on the floor Tuesday and chatted with the GOP leader about his past few days. Recounting their conversation, Durbin said McConnell told him: “I’ve taken every test they’ve thrown at me, … a concussion can take its toll, and that’s what I’m going through recovering from that concussion.”
Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.