Mitch McConnell’s Freeze-Ups Haven’t Fractured Senate Republicans—Yet

Even some former McConnell dissidents have thrown their lot in with the Kentucky senator after last week’s incident. In a twist, Florida senator Rick Scott—who unsuccessfully challenged McConnell for party leader and is a frequent critic—responded “absolutely” when asked whether he would continue to support McConnell as leader. “I’m sure he will continue to do his job.” Even when pressed and asked whether McConnell should step aside at the end of this Congress, Scott held firm. “No,” he said, adding that if McConnell “feels comfortable” he should continue serving.

That isn’t to say there aren’t detractors in the mix. Fellow Kentucky senator Rand Paul called on McConnell to “be more forthcoming with what’s going on,” and was dismissive of the explanation that the freezes could be explained away by dehydration; he later sought to clarify that his remarks were regarding the medical explanation—not necessarily a comment on McConnell’s fitness. But Senator Josh Hawley, who didn’t back McConnell in the last leadership race, has been vocal about his concerns, which he said are shared by his constituents. “I just got back from a month at home where I was asked about this constantly,” the Missouri lawmaker told reporters. “This is just where we are. So is that a good thing? No. So am I concerned? Yeah.” 

Hawley fears that McConnell’s issues have become a distraction—and could continue to be as the 2024 election cycle ramps up. “That’s an important election cycle for Republicans in this body,” he said. “I just hope that we are 100% focused on that.”

Late Tuesday evening, the Kentucky senator sought to quash the chatter. In his first public remarks since the second freeze, he briefly addressed the incident on the Senate floor. Running through an inventory of events he participated in during the recess, McConnell expressed chagrin: “One particular moment of my time back home has received its fair share of attention in the press over the past week, but I assure you August was a busy and productive month for me and my staff back in the commonwealth.”

Within hours, McConnell’s team released the letter from Monahan, the Senate physician. Monahan wrote, “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.” He noted that there are “no changes recommended in treatment protocols” for McConnell following his fall in March, during which he suffered a concussion. On Wednesday, McConnell took the floor once again, but avoided his health entirely, instead largely focusing on taking shots at the Biden administration’s foreign policy and urging for continued support for Ukraine in its war with Russia. “This is not the time to ease up,” he said. “It’s not the time for America to step back.”

But as McConnell and his allies maintain there is nothing to see here, massive legislative battles loom.

In the final days before lawmakers departed the Beltway for the August recess, tensions had reached a fever pitch among lawmakers when House Speaker Kevin McCarthy called it quits early as a number of key spending bills stalled out amid growing fissures within his caucus. Faced with the looming September 30 deadline to fund the government, it was a troubling portent. As House Democrat Suzan DelBene told Vanity Fair at the time, Congress was, “On a fast track to a shutdown.” Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer made a plea for both sides of the aisle to work together to fund the government. “If both sides work in good faith, embrace bipartisanship … then there will be no shutdown.” But that is hard to imagine.

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