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Falls and a Freeze

Aug 20, 2023Aug 20, 2023

By Pablo Manríquez

“Are you good, Mitch…?”

Joni Ernst was the first senator to verbally acknowledge that Mitch McConnell had stopped speaking at the lectern beside her. The Senate minority leader had frozen midsentence for around 20 agonizing seconds during his weekly remarks to reporters last Wednesday. Suddenly, the brief midweek press conference—standard fare for leaders of both parties in the Senate—had become a portent of instability atop the Republican leadership ladder.

“I’m feeling much—good,” McConnell told me the day after his colleagues had to whisk him away from journalists. “He’s obviously not going to tell you he’s feeling better because that implies he wasn’t feeling well in the first place,” laughed one GOP senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss McConnell’s health. “He’s like that old cowboy song that goes ‘If it’s a horse, ride it. If it’s a pain, hide it.’”

Per Senator Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican and medical doctor specializing in obstetrics, the minority leader chalked up the episode to getting “maybe a little dehydrated.” Outside experts have made much more serious conjectures than McConnell himself: “If I were his doctor or was in that audience, I would have recommended he go to the emergency room immediately,” Dr. Lee Schwamm, a stroke expert and neurologist at Yale, told The New York Times, saying McConnell could have suffered a mini stroke or partial seizure. In a workplace abound with septuagenarians and octogenarians—and in an institution where aides are known for shielding their bosses’ health issues from the press—McConnell’s momentary lapse has put added scrutiny on his office. At 81, he’s the longest-serving party leader in Senate history; he’s held the top post among his Republican senators since 2007. Like his contemporary in leadership, Nancy Pelosi, McConnell has faced some, albeit more muted, pressure within his caucus to step aside for a new generation (Pelosi, 83, stepped down last fall). Now, questions around his health have accelerated those conversations.

I’m told McConnell fell on the bathroom floor at the Waldorf Astoria, formerly the Trump International Hotel, on the evening of March 8. McConnell’s staff says the leader was immediately attended to. Multiple Republican senators including those in leadership, like John Thune, attended the Senate Leadership Fund reception, where McConnell gave remarks, but did not see the minority leader fall. McConnell suffered a concussion and a broken rib that kept him away from the Senate until April 17.

“That fall affected him,” said Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican. “You can’t deny that reality.”

Since his fall, senators have told reporters that Thune, and conference chair John Barrasso appear to be answering senators’ questions more often during Republicans’ weekly closed-door luncheons (McConnell’s office says the leader and Thune work together on strategy and Thune has always given updates at conference meetings), that McConnell’s hearing has worsened and that he walks with a slower gait, per an NBC report.

The GOP senator tells me that McConnell’s fall had knocked out at least one of McConnell’s hearing aids. “They’re still trying to recalibrate [the hearing aids] properly,” the senator said. “That’s why it’s been so difficult for him to hear since he fell.” On June 7, McConnell had difficulty hearing a reporter’s questions about AI during his weekly presser.

Another Republican senator, who was also granted anonymity to discuss McConnell’s health, said the leader told them that “the pain from his polio leaves him totally paralyzed sometimes, like unable to walk or move or even speak because it hurts so bad.” The senator continued, noting that McConnell told them “the pain that used to be confined to his leg causes, like, a spasm up his spine that takes over his entire body.” McConnell’s office disputed that complications from his childhood polio currently cause him any kind of sustained pain. McConnell contracted polio as a two-year-old in 1944. The disease affected his left quadricep, leaving McConnell bedridden and unable to walk for several years as a child.

Per CNN, McConnell has had several falls this year: a fall on July 14 while deplaning at Reagan National Airport outside Washington, DC, and a fall back in February while walking toward a meeting with Finnish president Sauli Niinistö in Helsinki. Some of his Republican colleagues have downplayed the severity of these incidents. Senator Ted Budd, a North Carolina Republican who traveled with McConnell as part of the American delegation, told CNN that the conditions had been icy in Helsinki “so it could happen to any of us.”

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“Maybe he’s slowed down a half step over the last couple years, but I don’t see any gross changes,” Senator Marshall told Vanity Fair. McConnell “just had a bad day” at the lectern on Wednesday, said Senator Tommy Tuberville, an Alabama Republican, adding, “I’ve had a lot of bad days myself,” with a laugh.

Tuberville also noted, generally, “We all gotta know when enough’s enough…. He’s fine. He’ll make his own decision on that.”

Mitch McConnell’s staff was quick to swat down any chatter about the leader’s ability to serve. “Leader McConnell appreciates the continued support of his colleagues, and plans to serve his full term in the job they overwhelmingly elected him to do,” his office put out in a statement to the press.

But those in his conference are already thinking about who is next. “If and when the time comes, I’m interested,” says Thune, who currently serves as the Republican whip and led the conference when McConnell was absent for around five weeks after his fall in March. Thune was the first to step up to deliver remarks when McConnell was briefly taken away from the lectern last week.

It’s no secret who is in the running for McConnell’s successorship. “I think people who would be interested in his position are people who are in leadership today,” said Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, name-dropping Thune, Barrasso, and Ernst. Texas Republican John Cornyn, who served as GOP whip from 2013 to 2019 and as a loyal McConnell ally, is also in the mix.

“The three Johns,” though, dominate the chatter of any post-McConnell order more than the two women on the leadership team—Ernst and conference vice chairman Shelley Moore Capito—or any possibility of a wild card in the conference, assumptions that bristle some Senate Republicans. “Wouldn’t it be great if it were a woman?” mused a senior GOP senator on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t think it’ll happen, but that would really be something if it were a woman,” the senator continued, a preference broadly echoed by at least two other women in the conference. “It’s all about who is interested in throwing their ideas into the mix and taking votes,” Senator Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Republican, told Politico.

Last November, 10 Senate Republicans presented the first challenge to McConnell’s grip as Senate GOP leader by voting for Rick Scott of Florida who, along with Mike Lee of Utah, were reportedly stripped of their preferred committee assignments when McConnell eventually prevailed by a vote of 37 to 10. No one had ever voted against McConnell in leadership elections before. But the internal mutiny was more about politics than a belief McConnell was no longer fit to serve.

After failing to retake the Senate majority in last year’s midterm election, some Republican senators had seen enough. McConnell, who has carefully navigated Donald Trump’s insurgency in his own party, suddenly had challengers. “My criticisms following the last election loss are well known,” said Josh Hawley of Missouri, one of the 10 Senate Republicans who voted for Scott. “I think we need a different approach…but I don’t want that to be taken as a dig against his health, at all.” For now—at least publicly—most of McConnell’s possible successors demure at the idea. “I’m happy to wait,” Cornyn said when asked if the conference should be making plans for when McConnell is no longer leader. “I don’t know how much longer he will want to serve, but I support him as long as he wants the job.”

“McConnell is our leader,” laughed Barrasso, the senior senator from Wyoming, a seat he has held since 2007, when asked about the GOP leader’s eventual secession.

When I asked McConnell directly if he had anyone in mind to replace him some day, he laughed out loud. It was the last question during the now infamous Wednesday presser where McConnell froze live on air.

“I’m fine,” he said—a line he repeated until the Senate left Capitol Hill until September for a five-week recess.

The American political memory is short, but McConnell’s not up for reelection until 2026—plenty of time for him to become another Senate prizefighter who played the long game, maybe too long.

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Joni ErnstMitch McConnellRoger Marshall,Lee Schwamm,Nancy Pelosi,John Thune,Ron Johnson,John BarrassoSauli NiinistöTed Budd,Tommy Tuberville,Mitt Romney,John Cornyn,Shelley Moore CapitoCynthia Lummis,Rick ScottMike LeeDonald TrumpJosh Hawley