Mitch McConnell back to work after freeze-up, offers no health updates

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) resumed his typical legislative duties after abruptly freezing mid-sentence at a Wednesday news conference, declining to provide health updates, even as doctors not involved with his care raised concerns about the latest in a string of troubling health scares.

On Wednesday night, he joined an event arranged by Major League Baseball — where he spoke and embraced new rules meant to accelerate games, according to aides — and attended late-night votes on the Senate floor. On Thursday morning, he greeted business leaders from Lexington, Ky., in a Capitol meeting room; huddled with the Italian prime minister in the offices of Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.); and attended a lengthy series of votes.

McConnell, 81, froze during the GOP leadership’s weekly news conference Wednesday, and appeared unable to resume speaking immediately. He remained silent for about 20 seconds, staring straight ahead, before other members of GOP leadership led him away from the dais. He returned several minutes later.

McConnell and his aides declined to say whether he sought medical attention. Other Republican senators insisted their caucus leader was “fine” and maintained that he simply felt “lightheaded,” as a McConnell aide anonymously asserted Wednesday.

Four neurologists interviewed by The Washington Post who reviewed footage of the incident said it could be explained by a range of reasons: dehydration exacerbated by heat, a near-fainting episode, or a partial seizure or stroke. One said it also could suggest an underlying neurological disorder that has not been publicly disclosed.

The specialists stressed they cannot offer firm conclusions or diagnoses without examining McConnell and reviewing his medical history. They said it was premature to question the longtime Senate GOP leader’s fitness to serve, although they said Wednesday’s episode merited medical attention.

“He is somebody who is very used to speaking in front of a camera,” said Ann Murray, a neurologist at West Virginia University. “For him to have this kind of trouble in executing a thing he has done many a time is really concerning.”

The episode left questions about the health of McConnell, who suffered a concussion and a broken rib after a fall in March at a private dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Washington. He was absent from the Senate for nearly six weeks as he recovered before returning to Capitol Hill in April.

McConnell has fallen at least two more times since then in incidents that were not publicly disclosed.

The senator sometimes uses a wheelchair to navigate crowded areas such as airports, according to an aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 GOP leader, said he has been concerned about McConnell’s health since the fall in March.

McConnell ignored reporter questions about the Wednesday incident as he walked around the Capitol on Thursday morning, saying nothing while aides asked for people to give him space.

“I take him at his word. Apparently, he was dehydrated, got a little lightheaded, but now he’s fine,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said Thursday.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said he spoke Wednesday night with McConnell and did not anticipate a change in GOP leadership.

“He’s fine and will continue to lead the party,” Romney said.

“I have no concern,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters at a Thursday news conference.

McCarthy said he met twice Wednesday with McConnell, including a 3 p.m. huddle not long after McConnell’s episode. They talked about pending legislation and strategy, he said, then both spoke at the baseball event.

Medical experts say lightheadedness can be a symptom of other medical issues.

Wade Smith, chief of the neurovascular division at the University of California at San Francisco, said McConnell’s episode is consistent with pre-syncope, or near fainting. Patients experiencing pre-syncope often complain of being lightheaded and become immobile for several seconds to several minutes, while remaining standing with their eyes open, Smith said. During Wednesday’s episode, McConnell’s eyelids never fluttered. The episodes can be caused by dehydration or medication side effects but should prompt a medical evaluation in the event they are linked to more serious conditions.

Smith said other explanations appear less likely, based on publicly available information, including seizures, transient ischemic attack (colloquially called a mini-stroke) or a migraine attack.

“None of these things have implications for cognitive function — the ability of a person to use their executive functions to make decision,” Smith said. “There’s no concern of a change in his ability to govern.”

Sanskriti Mishra, a neurologist at Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore University Medical Center, said the video of McConnell abruptly stopping speaking could signal a seizure or be a precursor to a stroke. But she said the assertion that McConnell was lightheaded expands the list of potential causes beyond neurological diagnoses, including low blood pressure, an infection or a change in medication.

“For somebody who is lightheaded and in an older age group, something like this can happen,” said Mishra, who leads the hospital’s comprehensive stroke center. “It’s hard to speculate.”

The news conference Wednesday prompted reports to emerge of at least two times McConnell has fallen this year that were not publicly known. One incident took place in February in Helsinki, as McConnell and a congressional delegation walked to greet the Finnish president, according to CNN. This month, McConnell fell while leaving a plane at Reagan Washington National Airport, NBC News reported.

McConnell has had serious falls before, including in August 2019 when he fell outside his Louisville home, fracturing his shoulder badly. The injury required surgery, and McConnell stayed at home the entire August recess that year, returning to the Capitol after Labor Day still wearing a shoulder brace.

In October 2020, McConnell appeared in public with bruised and bandaged hands and a puffy lip, but dismissed questions about his health then as a media fixation.

Murray, the West Virginia University neurologist, said repeated falls raise concerns about underlying neurological problems, such as Parkinson’s disease, neuropathy and muscle disorders.

“Falling is so unnatural,” Murray said. “It’s difficult and the neurological system says this is not normal, we don’t want to fall.”

Andrea An, an Arizona neurologist, said repeated head injuries sustained during falls and concussions increase the odds of seizures. She said episodes such as McConnell’s in which patients zone out for about 30 seconds before abruptly snapping back are consistent with partial seizures.

While there’s a broad spectrum of severity for seizures, An said they can be controlled by medication without disrupting a person’s work.

“I just don’t want the public to view this as something that shows, oh, he shouldn’t be in power,” said An, adding she is not a Republican. “Just because you have a spell like this doesn’t mean you are cognitively impaired.”