Sen. McConnell’s health episodes show no evidence of stroke or seizure disorder but questions linger
WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s health episodes show “no evidence” of a stroke or seizure disorder, the Capitol physician said Tuesday, but his statement still left questions about the apparent freeze-ups that have drawn concerns about the 81-year-old’s situation.
McConnell returned to work at the Capitol after the summer recess, and his office released a letter from attending physician Brian P. Monahan concerning the long-serving Republican leader’s health. The GOP leader froze up last week during a press conference in Kentucky, unable to respond to a question in the second such episode in a month.
Walking into the Senate on Tuesday, McConnell answered no questions as he smiled at reporters. He made only passing reference to the incident during a speech in the chamber, his voice somewhat muffled.
“One particular moment of my time back home has received its fair share of attention,” McConnell said. “But I assure you August was a busy and productive month for me.”
Asked later in the evening if he would holding his regular weekly press conference Wednesday, McConnell simply replied, “Yep.”
The episodes have fueled quiet concern and intense speculation about McConnell’s ability to remain the GOP leader. He suffered a concussion earlier this year when he fell and hit his head at a dinner in Washington. It has left him visibly slower in his speech and stride, and he appeared slimmer Tuesday. The letter was the second from the Capitol physician, who cleared McConnell to continue with his planned schedule after last week’s incident.
“There is no evidence that you have a seizure disorder or that you experienced a stroke, TIA or movement disorder such as Parkinson’s disease,” Monahan wrote, using the acronym for a transient ischemic attack, a brief stroke.
But there was no elaboration as to what did cause the episodes. The doctor said the assessments entailed several medical evaluations including a brain MRI scan and “consultations with several neurologists for a comprehensive neurology assessment.”
“There are no changes recommended in treatment protocols as you continue recovery from your March 2023 fall,” the doctor said.
It all comes amid a swirl of health concerns in Washington, particularly as COVID-19 cases show signs of rising heading into fall. First lady Jill Biden tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend, but President Joe Biden tested negative.
Many Republican allies have flocked to McConnell’s side, ensuring the famously guarded leader a well of support. Rivals have muted any calls for a direct challenge to his leadership.
“When donkeys fly,” GOP Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said when asked when McConnell would step down.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said he’s supporting McConnell as leader: “We might lose from Mitch McConnell 20 seconds a day, but the other 86,380 seconds are pretty darn good.”
And yet colleagues remained confused, concerned and hungering for a fuller explanation of the leader’s health.
“If you’re asking if I’m concerned about his health, yeah, of course I am,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. “I’m also concerned about the amount of questions I get about it.”
Hawley said during the month at home, he was asked repeatedly about McConnell’s health everywhere he went across Missouri “at the State Fair, from business group leaders, farmers, I mean everyone.”
Some senators appeared to question the physician’s diagnosis. But the top potential successors to McConnell’s leadership stood by him.
The No. 2 GOP leader Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said McConnell has his full support, as did the No. 3 GOP leader Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, another potential leadership heir, said McConnell told him last week that while he’s mentally rebounded from the concussion, physically it’s been a little more difficult.
“It appears that it’s harder to recover from a concussion when you’re 81 years old than maybe he thought,” Cornyn said. “But he feels like he’s up to the task and I think that’s the case.”
Said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas: “Age comes for us all. And Mitch is stubborn as a mule. And he’s tough.”
From the other side of the aisle, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, the party whip, spoke with McConnell after the GOP leader delivered his remarks in the Senate.
“He said, ‘You know, I’ve taken every test they’ve thrown at me.’ And he said that ‘concussion can take its toll. So I’m going through recovering from a concussion,’” Durbin of Illinois told reporters afterward.
“And I told him I said I was glad to see him back, couldn’t wait to disagree with him.”
Opening the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said of McConnell, “I’m glad to see him back and doing well.”
McConnell will be central to the fall schedule as Congress returns from an extended summer break for a flurry of activity, most notably the need to approve funding to prevent any interruption in federal operations by Sept. 30, which is the end of the fiscal year.
Some House Republicans are willing to shut down the government at the end of the month if they are unable to enact steep spending restrictions that go beyond the agreement Biden reached with Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy earlier this summer.
In leading Senate Republicans, McConnell is viewed by the White House and Democrats as a pragmatic broker who is more interested in avoiding a messy government shutdown that could be politically damaging to the GOP.
McConnell has also made it a priority to ensure Ukraine continues to receive support from the U.S. as it battles Russia.
A $40 billion funding package for Ukraine and U.S. disaster relief for communities hit by fires, floods and other problems, including the fentanyl crisis, is being proposed by the White House, but it is being met with skepticism from some Republicans reluctant to help as much as Biden wants in the Ukrainian war effort.
McConnell’s health has visibly declined since the concussion in March, after which he took some weeks to recover. His speaking has been more halting, and he has walked more slowly and carefully.
First elected in 1984, he became the longest serving Senate party leader in January. There were questions before his latest episode about whether he would run for re-election in 2026.
McConnell had been home in Kentucky at the time keeping a robust political schedule, speaking frequently to the public and press. Before freezing up last week, McConnell had just given a 20-minute speech with no issues.
Similarly, when he froze up during a press conference at the Capitol last month, he took a short break in his office and then returned to field about a half-dozen other questions and banter with the press.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Farnoush Amiri and Stephen Groves contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show the spelling of the doctor’s surname is Monahan, not Moanhan or Monohan.