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McConnell tries to shift Senate focus from his health to spending

Senate Republicans are facing continued questions about the health of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after the Kentucky Republican suffered two public health incidents.
Drew Angerer
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Senate Republicans are facing continued questions about the health of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after the Kentucky Republican suffered two public health incidents.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tried to end questions about his health and political future on Wednesday as the Senate prepares for a busy month of negotiations on federal spending.

Reporters repeatedly asked McConnell to provide specific details of what has caused two incidents where the GOP leader froze at public events in the past two months. McConnell did not answer those questions directly, instead referring reporters to a recent letter from the attending physician of the U.S. Capitol who said McConnell not suffer a seizure, stroke or movement disorder.

"I don't have anything to add to it," McConnell said. "I think it should answer any reasonable questions."

The letter from Dr. Brian Monahan was released by McConnell's office on Tuesday. Monahan said his examination of McConnell following a Aug. 30 incident in Kentucky included "several medical evaluations: brain MRI imaging, EEG study, and consultations with several neurologists for a comprehensive neurology assessment."

McConnell has generally avoided questions about his health since the first incident occurred in July. But the topic was the main focus for reporters when the Senate returned to Washington on Tuesday after a month-long August recess.

Republicans have grown frustrated with the focus, particularly with a September 30 deadline to pass government funding fast approaching. Senate appropriatorsare getting ready to hold votes on three of the 12 bipartisan spending bills that were already approved in committee. This is the first time in five years that the committee approved the full slate of regular funding bills and many in the Senate would prefer to focus on that.

However, Republican senators said McConnell offered details of his recent exams and health scares during a weekly party lunch in the Capitol.

"He went over the tests he's had, said he's been given a clean bill of health," Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., told reporters. "He indicated he's had two of these episodes and both of them happened to be during press conferences."

Several senators emphasized, as Kennedy did, that the two public incidents were the only times McConnell has reported experiencing those symptoms.

Most Senate Republicans have publicly supported McConnell and few have questioned his ability to lead the party either now or in the future.

"He's got a very small group of people that would even ask the question," said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. "Maybe a handful."

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley was one of 11 Republicans who voted against McConnell serving another term as Senate GOP leader in November. He told reporters that people asked him about McConnell's health throughout the August recess and that he has concerns.

"We've got a chance to take back the Senate," Hawley said. "I just, I hope that we'll be able to be laser focused, that the Senate at least will be laser focused on on retaking the Senate."

McConnell's allies moved to blunt that criticism with new fundraising data. Two outside groups with deep connections to McConnell, Senate Leadership Fund and One Nation, announced Wednesday that they had raised nearly $50 million last month. That money will be spent on Senate campaigns.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.