WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly said he is “fine” since he froze up midsentence during a press conference on Wednesday. And now his office is trying to tamp down speculation that he might not fill out his term as leader because of his health.
In a statement, his office said McConnell appreciates the continued support of his colleagues and “plans to serve his full term in the job they overwhelmingly elected him to do.”
The statement, first reported by Politico, comes after McConnell, 81, has suffered health problems in recent months. At his weekly press conference, he froze and stared vacantly for about 20 seconds before his GOP colleagues standing behind him grabbed his elbows and asked if he wanted to go back to his office. He later returned to the news conference and answered questions as if nothing had happened.
When asked about the episode, he said he was “fine,” a statement he repeated in a hallway to reporters later that day. Neither McConnell nor his office would answer questions about whether he got medical help afterward.
Even as McConnell tried to brush off the concerns, the episode raised new questions among his colleagues about his health and also whether McConnell, who was first elected to the Senate in 1984 and has served as Republican leader since 2007, might soon step aside from his leadership post.
He was elected to a two-year term as leader in January by a large majority of his conference, despite an insurgent challenge from Florida Sen. Rick Scott. He would be up for re-election as leader again after the 2024 elections.
By then, he will have to decide also if he wants to run again for another Senate term. He is up for re-election in 2026.
In March, McConnell suffered a concussion and a broken rib after falling and hitting his head after a dinner event at a hotel. He didn’t return to the Senate for almost six weeks. He has been using a wheelchair in the airport while commuting back and forth to Kentucky. And his speech has sounded more halting in recent weeks.
But McConnell, famously reticent and often private about his personal life and health, has said very little about what is going on.
Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said after Wednesday’s episode that McConnell’s job as 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. “But I don’t have to tell you, Mitch is also, as an individual, a pretty private guy. So we’ll see.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said he talked to McConnell on Wednesday night and he seemed “strong and alert.” But he said what happened at the news conference on Wednesday was disturbing to watch.
“Mitch is strong, he’s stubborn as a mule,” Cruz said. “My prayers are with them. I hope that — we’re going into the August recess — I hope he has time to fully recuperate.”
GOP senators who are seen as potential successors have been cautious in their approach to questions.
“He’s fine, he’s back to work,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican and one of the senators standing behind McConnell when he froze up.
“I support Senator McConnell as long as he wants to serve as leader,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, another potential replacement.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the No. 3 Senate Republican and a former orthopedic surgeon, guided McConnell back to his office to rest during the news conference. Afterwards, he told reporters that he has been concerned since McConnell was injured earlier this year, “and I continue to be concerned.”
Barrasso then added: “I said I was concerned when he fell and hit his head a number of months ago and was hospitalized. And I think he’s made a remarkable recovery, he’s doing a great job leading our conference and was able to answer every question the press asked him today.”
Several other GOP senators projected confidence in the Republican leader.
“I do have confidence in his leadership,” said Wyoming Sen. Cynthia Lummis. “At lunch yesterday, he spoke. He was completely on his game using numbers that were pulled out of his head and he was completely with it. So I don’t know what precipitated the freeze, but he’ll be careful to evaluate his own capabilities.”
Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall said he was “a little concerned” after the news conference.
“He said that he got a little overheated, a little dehydrated,” said Marshall, who is also a doctor. “That’s what it looks like to me. I can tell you, he’s got a strong, strong voice in our conference. He’s providing steady leadership. And I think he’s doing a great job as leader.”
McConnell 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, he also tripped and fell four years ago at his home in Kentucky, causing a shoulder fracture that required surgery.
The Republican leader carried on with his full schedule after the episode on Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he spoke with his Republican counterpart at an event for Thursday evening for Major League Baseball owners.
“I said I’m so glad you’re here,” Schumer said. “And he made a very good speech.”
Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro and AP videojournalist Mike Pesoli contributed to this report.