WASHINGTON — Some Republican senators harbor concerns about Mitch McConnell’s health, saying they have personally witnessed changes in the minority leader, 81, after he fell and sustained a concussion in March.
Publicly, Senate Republicans are rallying around McConnell, R-Ky., sending him their support and well-wishes. None are calling on him to step down, and the senators who are next in line for the top job say they’re making no succession plans.
“I don’t know how much longer he will want to serve, but I support him as long as he wants the job,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a former GOP whip and a McConnell loyalist who has been floated as a potential successor.
But anxieties have risen after McConnell froze for 19 seconds at a news conference Wednesday before he left and returned.
“He suffered a really bad fall, and that’s actually had an impact on him,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who didn’t go into greater detail or say he has seen evidence to question McConnell’s ability to carry out his duties. “Obviously, that fall affected him.”
“Age affects us all,” Johnson said. “You can’t deny that reality.”
The murmurings underscore how the GOP is struggling to deal with the sensitive health issues of the longest-serving Senate party leader in U.S. history.
McConnell owes his longevity to a deep loyalty among Republican senators, and he defeated a rare challenge to his leadership post in November after the midterm elections, which led to a debate about the party’s future. But the incident Wednesday has sparked further questions about what’s next.
A Republican senator who considers themselves a McConnell ally and requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject wondered what the episode portends.
“I kind of do” think he should step down, said the senator, who added that the “murmurings” about his future are inevitable. “I’d hate to see it forced on him. You can do these things with dignity, or it becomes less dignified. And I hope he does it in a dignified way — for his own legacy and reputation.”
The senator said they have noticed that McConnell doesn’t speak or answer questions from members as often as he used to in their weekly GOP closed-door lunches, with two of his top lieutenants — Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., and Conference Chair John Barrasso, R-Wyo. — stepping in more often.
“People think that he’s not hearing well,” the senator said. “I think that he is just not processing.”
The senator said McConnell is “intellectually sharp” and “bright on a whole host of issues, including baseball.”
“But lately … he’s not the go-to guy for ‘How are things going?’ … It’s been noticeable in the last few weeks,” the senator added.
Another Republican senator who is close to McConnell said they have noticed that he is “definitely slower with his gait” and added that McConnell doesn’t discuss his health during private meetings.
Health concerns are a common theme in the Senate — particularly for aging members — and they often put colleagues in uncomfortable positions. Numerous episodes indicate that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., 90, has slowed down mentally and physically in recent years; she relinquished top positions under pressure from Democrats before she announced she wouldn’t seek re-election in 2024. The ailing Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., resigned mid-session in 2018, acknowledging his declining health.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, 89, surprised many when he opted last year to run for another six-year term — and won handily — although he hasn’t given colleagues reason to question his mental or physical fitness.
“When hell freezes over, there will be three things left: Chuck Grassley, Mitch McConnell and cockroaches,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., voicing confidence in the minority leader.
McConnell sustained a concussion and fractured a rib in March when he took a bad fall at a private dinner at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Washington, his aides said. It was the worst of three known falls this year, and the injuries sidelined him for six weeks. Several times since March, he has appeared to have trouble hearing and responding to questions from reporters.
On Wednesday, moments after he was escorted away from the lectern, McConnell returned and said, “I’m fine,” before he responded to a series of questions. Later that day, he quipped to reporters in the Capitol that President Joe Biden “called to check on me,” and “I told him I got sandbagged.” McConnell’s office declined to comment for this article.
Some Republicans say they want to see McConnell replaced — but not because of his health.
“I didn’t vote for him for leader. So for me, if you’re asking what my preference is, my preference would be for different leadership,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. “But that doesn’t really have anything to do with his health. … I have no commentary on his health or any other senator’s.”
Hawley said he has “no idea” whom he’d support, but he insisted he would “absolutely not” run for the position himself.
“There are several folks who, I’m sure, would want the job,” he said.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., a McConnell foe who ran unsuccessfully against him this year, declined to speculate about his future and wished him well.
“I think he’s got to get healthy, and that’s all we should focus on,” Scott said.
Cornyn has been seen as one possible successor as GOP leader, along with the two other Johns, Thune and Barrasso. But Thursday, Cornyn said he’s “happy to wait” before he has the conversation of who should replace McConnell, who first won election to the Senate in 1984 and has served as the top Republican since 2007.
Others, too, are defending McConnell without hesitation. Sen. Ted Budd, R-N.C., was traveling with McConnell in Helsinki in February when McConnell fell on his way to a meeting with the Finnish president, a fall CNN first reported Thursday.
Budd said that it was “icy” that day and that it could have happened to anyone. “He’s doing a great job. He’s very skilled and obviously a better manager than Leader Schumer,” Budd said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer D-N.Y.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said Thursday that she heard McConnell speak Wednesday and that he was “on his game, reciting numbers off the top of his head, talking about policy, talking about politics.”
“He was the same old pithy, smart Mitch McConnell,” Lummis said. “I fully support him. I know that when he feels that he wants to throw in the towel, he’ll let us know.”