How Mitch McConnell Avoided a Mutiny

A close-up of Mitch McConnell.
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Typically, when senators and members of Congress return from long recesses, they note that the hardworking, God-fearing members of their idyllic districts and states aren’t concerned about inside-the-Beltway gossip. They just want Washington to roll up their sleeves and solve some problems.

According to Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, though, he couldn’t move an inch this August without getting bombarded with questions about Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s brain.

“I’ve just been home for a month,” Hawley told reporters Tuesday afternoon, on the first day the Senate was back in town following August recess. McConnell has suffered public freezes on camera, twice in recent months, following a concussion earlier this year. In both cases, he stopped speaking on a dime and stared vacantly until staff and colleagues recognized they had to step in.

“I was asked all over the state, and I mean all over the state, about” it, Hawley said. “And this was before the most recent episode, and absolutely after it. I mean, I was everywhere—state fair, farmers, business groups—and believe me, I mean, they brought it up. So it’s on people’s minds, clearly.”

He added, further, that if Republicans are going to make hay of President Biden’s age and perceived decline, it would be inconsistent for them to cover up for one of their own.

“If you’re concerned about the president, you’ve got to be concerned about other people in leadership. It’s a two-way street,” he said. When asked directly whether McConnell’s condition makes it harder to criticize Biden for his age, Hawley responded, “Yes.”

Some context is useful here. When Florida Sen. Rick Scott challenged McConnell for the leadership position late last year, Hawley was in Scott’s corner. And he reiterated that a number of times to reporters on Tuesday. When I asked Hawley whether it was time for McConnell to step aside as leader given his health issues, he said, “You’ll have to ask somebody who voted for him.”

In a shocking correlation, it’s the Senate Republicans who’ve had antagonistic or frosty relationships with McConnell in recent years who seem most concerned about his recent health issues hampering his ability to stay on as leader. But that’s always been a small bloc. McConnell fended off Scott’s leadership challenge last year by a 37-to-10 vote. And those 37 senators, along with several of the 10, are still in lockstep behind McConnell’s leadership.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney won the planned response of the day.

“We might lose from Mitch McConnell 20 seconds a day,” he told reporters, “but the other 86,380 seconds are pretty darn good.”

McConnell had worked to rally conference support following his second public freeze in Kentucky last week. In addition to private, reassuring phone calls he made to senators, his office released two letters from Congress’ attending physician, Brian Monahan, attesting that McConnell’s brain was still functioning majestically. In an Aug. 31 letter, Monahan wrote that “occasional lightheadedness is not uncommon in concussion recovery and can also be expected as a result of dehydration,” and that McConnell was “medically clear to continue with his schedule as planned.”

The second letter, distributed by McConnell’s press team Tuesday morning just as reporters were preparing to bug Republican senators on the matter, was a little more extensive, listing a number of tests McConnell had undergone. “There is no evidence that you have a seizure disorder or that you experienced a stroke, TIA [transient ischemic attack] or movement disorder such as Parkinson’s disease,” Monahan wrote.

Although this letter offered a little more transparency into the process, it wasn’t entirely comprehensive.

North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer described the second letter as “encouraging” and certainly “reassuring,” but noted what was missing from it. “It still doesn’t explain the episodes,” he told reporters. “It explains what they weren’t.”

Sen. Rand Paul, McConnell’s fellow Kentuckian (with whom he shares little in common), was more sharply critical of Monahan’s medical opinion.

“Everybody’s seen the clips,” Paul told reporters Tuesday. “It’s not a valid medical diagnosis for people to say that’s dehydration.” In a follow-up to NBC News on Wednesday, Paul elaborated further. “What I can tell you is that having vacant spells of 30 seconds or more where you’re unresponsive is not a sign or a symptom of dehydration.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who’s had a long up-and-down but more frequently down relationship with McConnell, offered a Cruzian master class in prepared ambiguity.

“The health scares he’s had were frightening,” Cruz said when I asked how concerned he was about McConnell’s leadership ability. “But age comes for us all, and Mitch is stubborn as a mule, and he’s tough. And so he’s been in my prayers in recent weeks.” (Stubborn as a mule: It works as both a compliment and a dig.)

Cruz quickly pivoted from follow-up questions, though, to a criticism of the media “frenzy” over McConnell’s health compared to the “complete lack of interest of anyone in the corporate media as to the very severe diminishment and mental capacity from Joe Biden, who is the commander in chief, whose fingers are literally on the nuclear button.”

As Cruz was getting into the elevator, a reporter asked him if he still had “full faith” in McConnell’s ability to lead the conference.

“Write something about Joe Biden—I dare you,” Cruz responded.

There had been some chatter last week from Senate Republicans about calling for a “special meeting” to discuss McConnell’s health. Since Senate Republicans already have three meetings a week in a format known as “lunch,” calling for a “special meeting” would’ve served little other purpose than to embarrass the man.

No such special meeting materialized. McConnell did, however, use the first 10 or so minutes of Wednesday’s lunch to give a personal status update. For someone so thoroughly disgusted at ever having to talk about his health, this mustn’t have been easy for him. But it appeared to have done the trick.

When I asked Indiana Sen. Mike Braun—who voted against McConnell in last year’s leadership election—if he felt properly reassured after McConnell’s presentation, he said yes. “I mean, there was no new information, and no questions asked,” he said. But, “you know, he seemed like he was in good shape.” McConnell, according to several senators, said he’d experienced only two such freezing episodes—and unfortunately, both had been on camera. (Perhaps it was just stage fright, or a sudden emergence of the yips.)

Paul, meanwhile, emerged telling reporters over and over that he doesn’t “comment on any of the private stuff from our conference meetings,” which has not been my understanding of Rand Paul over the years. Cruz, postmeeting, reiterated his same lines from the day before when asked whether he felt reassured.

“As I said, my prayers continue to be with Mitch,” Cruz told reporters. “And he’s stubborn as a mule, and I have every hope he recovers to full strength.”

The most interesting part of Republicans’ lunch, though, may not have been what McConnell said or reiterated. It was the sequencing of lunch speakers. (If you’ve followed McConnell’s meticulous planning over the years, this seemed far from a coincidence.) As soon as McConnell finished speaking, Steven Law—a former McConnell aide and the chief of the “McConnell-aligned” super PAC the Senate Leadership Fund—“made a presentation about McConnell fundraising,” per Punchbowl News.

In other words: There was a reminder that McConnell controls the money.

Which incumbents might need that leadership money in the 2024 Senate election cycle? Although it’s an extremely favorable map for Republicans overall, Cruz—who won reelection by 3 points in 2018 and has drawn a worthy Democratic challenger in Rep. Colin Allred this cycle—might need some air cover in the form of outside ad spending.

The only other incumbent Republican in even marginal danger, though, would be McConnell’s principal antagonist over the past couple of years: Rick Scott. And during this whole situation, Scott has been acting like someone who’s been beat by McConnell before and knows not to try again.

When first asked about McConnell following the leader’s second freeze last week, Scott said, “I expect he’ll continue to be Republican leader through this term” and then they’d see. But after Wednesday’s lunch presentation, Scott had fully submitted. He told reporters that McConnell did a “good job” addressing senators, and that he didn’t have “any concerns” about his ability to lead the conference.

So the likes of Josh Hawley may take their shots here or there, but that will be the extent of it. Take it from Scott, who lost the last mutiny: Now’s not the time for another one.