Weeks from a possible government shutdown, Mitch McConnell is freezing up in public. That’s not a good sign

Robbin Taylor, the state director for Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell,  Covington, Ky.
Robbin Taylor, the state director for Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, steps to the Senate Republican leader’s side as he freezes up while trying to respond to a reporter’s question Wednesday in Covington, Ky.
(Associated Press)
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If it did nothing else, the sight of Sen. Mitch McConnell freezing in public for the second time in as many months would stand as a frightening reminder of the frailties of age.

Over the last year, the 81-year-old Senate Republican leader has suffered at least three falls, including one in March that left him with a concussion. In July, he froze for about 20 seconds while answering reporters’ questions in the Capitol.

Wednesday, it happened again.


This time, the episode hit in his home state after a reporter asked whether McConnell planned to run for reelection — his current six-year term will expire after 2026. The senator initially chuckled, started to respond, “that’s uh,” then froze, his eyes staring slightly to his right, his mouth in a tight, slight frown. Two aides moved to help him.

After about 20 seconds, McConnell said “OK,” and appeared to focus once again. He took two more questions and offered cogent answers, but with his words audibly slurred, then left. A spokesperson later told news organizations that McConnell had felt “light-headed.”

Public worries about aged leaders

The spectacle would be disturbing even if McConnell were not one of America’s most powerful public officials. But, of course, he is. His signs of frailty highlight the problem of aged leaders, which has also been apparent with the serious cognitive problems from which Sen. Dianne Feinstein suffers.

McConnell’s office has provided no diagnosis. Neurologists who have watched video of the episodes have suggested they could be mini-strokes or seizures, but have cautioned that without a direct examination, they can only speculate. On Thursday, Congress’ attending physician released a statement saying that McConnell was “medically clear to continue with his schedule” and that bouts of light-headedness were common during recovery from a concussion.

Whatever the cause, the sight of McConnell faltering in public is a reminder for Democrats of the risk they run with 80-year-old President Biden. Despite rumors fueled by his opponents, Biden hasn’t suffered the sorts of problems that have befallen either McConnell or Feinstein, but the ever-present possibility that he could has dogged his reelection campaign and clearly worries voters.

Just over three-quarters of the public said Biden is “too old to effectively serve another four-year term as president,” according to a poll released Tuesday by the Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. That included almost 7 in 10 Democrats as well as nearly 9 in 10 Republicans. Of those who said he was too old, 85% said they would prefer Biden not run again.

That doesn’t mean people won’t vote for Biden — the public has other, deep concerns about former President Trump. But it does leave the president at constant risk from a stumble or stutter, let alone a full-scale neurological episode such as McConnell has gone through.

In the shorter run, McConnell’s problems come at a tricky time.

Congress has just over four weeks until the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1 and so far has not passed a single one of the 12 annual spending bills that fund most agencies. Most of the government will shut down if lawmakers don’t pass the spending bills or a short-term stopgap by the end of the month.


“Honestly, it’s a pretty big mess,” McConnell said in answer to a question shortly before his freeze up.

Avoiding a shutdown

The impasse stems from deep, unresolved differences over spending that separate the Republicans who control the House, especially the far-right wing of the party, and the Biden administration and congressional Democrats.

Senate Republicans, led by McConnell, sit between the contending parties and have sided more with the administration on some key issues, including continued U.S. aid to Ukraine. Over the last decade, McConnell repeatedly has played a central role in negotiating deals to end spending impasses between congressional Republicans and Democratic presidents. Whether he’s still able to do that remains unknown.

The current stalemate stems from the agreement that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and White House negotiators worked out in May to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. The agreement included spending levels for coming years and provided enough cuts to allow McCarthy to say he had achieved an overall spending reduction. But it left Biden’s domestic spending priorities largely intact.

Congress approved the deal in early June, but 71 House Republicans voted no, requiring McCarthy to rely on Democrats’ support to get it over the finish line.

Ever since, members of the House Freedom Caucus and their allies have sought to overturn the agreement, or at least undermine it. They’ve blocked some annual spending bills from coming to the House floor, insisted that others be set at levels far below what the agreement called for and have said they will try to add abortion bans and other measures that the White House won’t accept.


In his remarks Wednesday, McConnell made clear which side he sees as primarily responsible for the impasse.

“The Speaker and the President reached an agreement, which I supported, in connection with raising the debt ceiling to set the spending levels for next year. The House then turned around and passed spending levels that were below that level,” he said. “That’s not going to be replicated in the Senate.”

Because the stalemate over spending probably will delay the annual spending bills well into the fall, McConnell said he expected Congress would have to pass a short-term measure, perhaps one that would last until December. But several conservative House members have said they oppose that too.

On Thursday, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said at a town hall meeting in her Georgia district that she would not vote to fund government agencies unless the House had passed a resolution to start an impeachment process against Biden, a statement the White House condemned. McCarthy had previously suggested a connection between funding the government and investigations into allegations against Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, warning Republican members that if the government shut down, those inquiries would have to stop, too.

Government shutdowns are unpopular with the public, but some on the right have openly courted one, arguing that a crisis will give them leverage to force the White House and Senate Democrats to accept additional spending cuts. That has generated unease among more mainstream members of the Republican caucus, who see a shutdown as a potential political disaster.

The gap reflects the differing political incentives the two groups face.

Nearly all of the far-right members in the House represent deeply conservative, Republican districts in which the only opposition an incumbent worries about would come from a primary challenge. Many of their constituents probably would support a shutdown — at least for a while.


By contrast, 20 Republicans, including five from California, represent districts that are clearly competitive for 2024, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. An additional dozen, including two Californians, have districts that could become competitive under the right circumstances.

Democrats would only have to knock off a net of five seats in 2024 to regain their House majority.

So McCarthy could soon find himself back in the dilemma he faced in May: Should he accept a deal that will require Democratic support and alienate the right wing of his party? Or should he block a deal from coming to the House floor and allow a shutdown to happen? The one path could endanger his hold on the speakership, the other could endanger the reelection of his majority.

Luckily for the speaker, outside events may help him. Hurricane Idalia did extensive damage in Florida, which will require additional disaster relief funds. Florida Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican, has already called for Congress to quickly pass disaster aid. Several Freedom Caucus members come from Florida and neighboring Georgia, which was also hit by the storm.

In the past, congressional leaders have wrapped aid measures into short-term spending bills to gain votes. It may take a hurricane to get the country’s sclerotic political system moving, but nature seems happy to oblige.

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