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Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell can continue with his work schedule, congressional physician says

by The Associated Press | September 4, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The attending physician to Congress said Thursday that he had cleared Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to continue with his planned schedule after evaluating an incident in which McConnell appeared to freeze up at an event in Kentucky.

But the health episode -- his second in public this summer -- has fueled quiet concern among Republican senators and intense speculation about his ability to remain as leader. The famously guarded McConnell called several of his deputies in leadership after the Wednesday health episode. But the longest-serving Senate party leader is still revealing little about his health condition, even to his closest colleagues.

McConnell, 81, appeared to freeze up and remained silent for about 30 seconds during a news conference Wednesday, almost a month after a similar incident in Washington. In March, McConnell suffered a concussion and broke a rib after falling and hitting his head after a dinner event at a hotel.

The Kentucky Republican's office released a statement from Dr. Brian Monahan saying that he had consulted with McConnell and his neurology team and cleared the senator to continue with his schedule. He did not say if he had examined McConnell personally, and he did not provide any additional details or a diagnosis.

"After evaluating yesterday's incident, I have informed Leader McConnell that he is medically clear to continue with his schedule as planned," the short statement read. "Occasional lightheadedness is not uncommon in concussion recovery and can also be expected as a result of dehydration."

McConnell's office has only said that he was feeling "momentarily lightheaded" when he froze up on Wednesday. An aide eventually came to his assistance and repeated questions for him, and he gave brief answers before leaving the room. The episode was strikingly similar to the incident in July, when he froze mid-sentence for around 20 seconds before fellow Republicans and an aide came to his assistance and led him back to his office. He then returned to the news conference and answered additional questions.

President Joe Biden said he spoke to McConnell on Thursday and the senator "was his old self on the telephone."

"It's not at all unusual to have a response that sometimes happens to Mitch when you've had a severe concussion," the president said during a visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "It's part of the recovery, and so I'm confident he's going to be back to his old self."

The Senate is scheduled to convene next week after the month-long August break, and there are certain to be questions from McConnell's colleagues about his health, which has visibly declined since the concussion in March. His speaking has been more halting, and he has walked more slowly and carefully.

The lack of information from McConnell and his doctors has prompted more questions on Capitol Hill about whether he will run for reelection in 2026 and who may succeed him as GOP leader. But the discussion has remained behind closed doors, for now, with most fellow Republican senators publicly supportive.

"I talked to Sen. McConnell yesterday and he seemed to be doing fine," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn on Thursday after an event in his home state. "I don't know what the underlying issue is, but we all wish him well. We know he's had a fall, and a concussion, and I think this may be part of the recovery process from that. But I served with him for a long time now, he's been my mentor, and basically everything I've learned about the United States Senate I've learned from him."

Cornyn added that he expects McConnell "will continue as long as he can and wants to."

As McConnell's former top deputy, Cornyn is one of several senators who could be in the running to replace him. Speculation has also centered around South Dakota Sen. John Thune, who is currently McConnell's No. 2, and Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, who is the No. 3 Republican and the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

McConnell called all three men on Wednesday after the episode, along with West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who also serve on McConnell's leadership team.

In the calls, McConnell gave the senators reassurances about his health. A spokeswoman for Cornyn, Natalie Yezbick, said McConnell "shared that he was doing well." A spokesman for Thune, Ryan Wrasse, said McConnell "sounded like his usual self and was in good spirits."

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, another McConnell ally, said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that she had spoken to him Thursday. "Leader Mitch McConnell called me this afternoon to discuss the resumption of Senate business next week," she wrote. "He is fully prepared to continue leading our caucus when the Senate resumes session on Tuesday."

Longtime McConnell friend and adviser Scott Jennings says he spent much of August with McConnell in Kentucky and noted that the GOP leader has kept a robust schedule, speaking frequently to the public and press. McConnell had just given a 20-minute speech with no issues when he froze up on Wednesday in response to a reporter's question about whether he would run for re-election in 2026.

Jennings said McConnell is "relatively private person when it comes to personal matters like that" and always has been. He pushed back on critics who say McConnell is too old to serve in his position.

"Two things are being conflated, his age and his recovery from this concussion," Jennings said.

Still, many of his colleagues want more information. After McConnell's first public freeze-up in July, Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said the job of leader calls for more transparency than it would for others.

"We should find out, you know, fairly soon what happened and how serious it is," Cramer said then. "But I don't have to tell you, Mitch is also, as an individual, a pretty private guy. So we'll see."

McConnell was elected to the Senate in 1984 and as GOP leader in 2007. He became the longest-serving party leader in the Senate at the beginning of the year.

He had polio in his early childhood and he has long acknowledged some difficulty as an adult in climbing stairs. In addition to his fall in March, McConnell also tripped and fell four years ago at his home in Kentucky, causing a shoulder fracture that required surgery.

Print Headline: Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell can continue with his work schedule, congressional physician says

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