Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is facing a fresh set of questions about his health and ability to lead the GOP conference following his latest public freeze-up — the second incident in just more than a month.
While speaking to reporters in Covington, Ky., last week, McConnell, 81, froze and was unresponsive for roughly 30 seconds at the podium, prompting his aides to check if he was OK. McConnell resumed the press gaggle following the episode, but he required help from his aide to hear the questions being asked.
McConnell’s team chalked the incident up to feeling “momentarily lightheaded” — similar to their response following the first freeze-up — and the Capitol attending physician cleared the GOP leader to continue his schedule, noting that “occasional lightheadedness” is not unusual following a concussion, which McConnell suffered in March, and when experiencing dehydration.
But the episode — and string of recent health-related incidents — is increasing scrutiny of the longtime Senate GOP leader and his political future, which will come into sharp focus when the chamber returns to session this week for a high-stakes stretch marked by the battle over government funding.
Following McConnell’s first freeze-up — which occurred in July during his weekly press conference in the Capitol — the GOP leader’s spokesperson said the Kentuckian “plans to serve his full term in the job they overwhelmingly elected him to do,” which ends in 2025. McConnell is not up for reelection until 2026, but the Senate GOP conference elects leaders at the beginning of each Congress.
And in the wake of the second episode, McConnell’s closest Senate allies — and even one of his known rivals — stood by him, throwing their support behind his leadership capabilities and expressing no concerns with his ability to steer the conference going forward. The internal support effectively swats away at speculation about the Kentucky Republican’s tenure as leader in the short term.
But at the same time, some pundits and politicians — a small, yet noticeable group — are publicly wondering if McConnell’s team is withholding details about his health, and whether it may be time for the Kentuckian to hang up his hat as GOP leader after 16 years at the helm of the conference.
Editors of the National Review, a revered conservative publication, said McConnell — whom they dubbed “a legend of the U.S. Senate” and “one of the most effective leaders in memory” — should step aside from his post atop the Senate GOP conference following his latest freeze-up.
In an article published the day after the incident, the outlet’s editors called McConnell’s recent episodes ”obviously not normal” and said they affect “his ability to function as the leading representative of his caucus.”
“A leadership transition doesn’t need to happen urgently, but the wheels should be turning,” the editors wrote.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — who has a history of sparring with McConnell — said the GOP leader was “not fit for office” following last week’s incident, and Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who has called on Democrats to instill a new generation of leaders in Washington, said it is time to discuss term limits in Washington amid incidents involving McConnell and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), 90, who continues to represent California despite moments of apparent confusion.
“For goodness sake, the family, friends, and staff of Senators Feinstein and McConnell are doing them and our country a tremendous disservice. It’s time for term limits for Congress and the Supreme Court, and some basic human decency,” Phillips wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), who passed on a bid for Senate last cycle despite being considered one of the GOP’s top prospects, said the current moment could provide an opportunity to bring new voices into Washington leadership — not just with McConnell, but Feinstein and President Biden, too.
“If this keeps happening — and there’s no reason to think it won’t — that creates an issue. And let’s remember, this isn’t just Speaker McConnell, I mean obviously we have great concern for him, we have, you know, the senator from California, we have our own president who has had issues, obviously,” Sununu said on CNN. “Age is playing a role in Washington right now, and not in a positive way, unfortunately.”
“And so there’s just an opportunity here to say OK, you know, no hard feelings, it’s health. It’s age, you know, we got to move you out of the leadership position, bring kind of a new generation, another voice in. There’s lots of folks that can do these jobs,” he continued. “And these folks have done a very good job for their constituents and for the country, and we say thank you and, you know, bring in some new leadership.”
Despite the noise, McConnell’s position in the top leadership role appears safe. Unlike the House’s motion to vacate — which allows just one member to force a vote on ousting the Speaker, as outlined in the House rules — any move to remove McConnell from his leadership position would have to go through an internal Senate GOP conference process.
Instead, at least five senators could force a special meeting of the conference to discuss leadership, which some are reportedly considering.
Politico reported last week that some rank-and-file GOP senators have talked about potentially convening a larger conversation to discuss their leadership future when the chamber reconvenes, according to a person directly involved in the conversations. Leadership, per Politico, is not involved in the talks.
Even without a special meeting, however, the GOP conference meets for weekly lunches, giving them another opportunity to discuss the future.
While the scrutiny of McConnell is growing, his support inside the Capitol — at least publicly — remains ironclad.
The Kentucky Republican spoke to members of his leadership team following the freeze-up — including Senate GOP Whip John Thune (S.D.), Senate GOP Conference Vice Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee — all of whom said the GOP leader sounded like himself and was feeling fine, according to spokespeople for the three.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the vice chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, wrote on X that McConnell called her to discuss this week’s business in the chamber, adding, “He is fully prepared to continue leading our caucus when the Senate resumes session on Tuesday.”
Even Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) — who staged the first-ever challenge against McConnell in a leadership race last fall — told CBS News following the incident that he expects the Kentuckian “will continue to be the Republican leader, you know, through this term.”
“My belief is he’s gonna come back and he’s gonna work hard,” Scott added.
But McConnell’s two freeze-ups — coupled with his concussion in March and two other falls this year — are putting a spotlight on GOP leadership, and leading some to wonder what a post-McConnell Senate GOP would look like.
It has been long believed that three of McConnell’s allies — Thune, Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) and Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) — would be in the running to replace McConnell atop the conference. Thune ran the Senate floor when McConnell was out earlier in the year following his concussion, Cornyn raised buckets of cash for the conference this year and Barrasso has played an important role in pushing messaging strategy this Congress.
But for now, the Senate GOP conference is McConnell’s group — and a McConnell ally says the Kentucky Republican is prepared to keep steering the ship.
“It is hard to reconcile,” Scott Jennings, who previously worked for McConnell, said on CNN last week of the Kentuckian’s upbeat behavior during recess and his freeze-up.
“But at the same time, this afternoon, when I saw the letter come out from the Capitol physician Monahan, I knew that Sen. McConnell had sought the advice of a physician, I was glad to see that letter come out,” he continued. “And I think, you know, that will give people a lot of confidence that he’s OK to keep doing what he does, which is being an effective leader for the Republicans in the Senate.”