(Bloomberg) -- Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell froze after a reporter Wednesday asked his thoughts on seeking reelection, the second public episode in as many months to raise concerns about the 81-year-old lawmaker’s ability to remain in office.
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McConnell abruptly stopped and stared ahead for more than 30 seconds after the reporter’s question about a potential 2026 run during an appearance in Covington, Kentucky. An NBC reporter posted video of the exchange on X, the social media platform previously known as Twitter.
Eventually, a woman standing next to McConnell stepped forward to ask if he had heard the question. When he didn’t move, she said to the group, “I’m sorry we’re going to be a minute.” Then she and another person went to him. Seconds later he said, “OK” but didn’t respond to the question.
McConnell, a shrewd legislative tactician and prolific fundraiser, has been a bulwark of the Republican Party establishment, moderating the populist impulses of former President Donald Trump’s allies while protecting traditional conservative priorities, including funding for Ukraine.
A spokesman for McConnell said in an emailed statement that the senator “felt momentarily lightheaded and paused during his press conference today.” An aide said he felt fine but planned to consult a doctor before his next event.
The mental acuity of older American political leaders has surfaced as an issue as Republicans campaign against President Joe Biden, 80, on his age and critics press Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, 90, to resign because of her frailty and confusion.
In July, McConnell froze for about 20 seconds during a news conference on Capitol Hill. He was led away for a few minutes but then returned to the microphones and said he was “fine” and able to do his job.
The two episodes come months after McConnell suffered a concussion and broken rib in a March 8 fall at a fundraiser in Washington. He was discharged from a hospital on March 25 but didn’t return to the Senate until mid-April.
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“He’s a good friend and so I’m gonna try to get in touch with him later this afternoon,” Biden said of McConnell, with whom he served in the Senate.
John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, spoke with McConnell after the incident. “The leader sounded like his usual self and was in good spirits,” Thune spokesman Ryan Wrasse said.
Lawmakers are not in Washington and few immediately reacted to McConnell’s latest episode. But at least two representatives — Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican — questioned McConnell’s fitness for office.
Craig Robinson, a longtime Republican strategist, said, “I feel bad for him, I really do. But I also don’t think that being in leadership is the right spot for him.”
Democrats and independents aligned with the party have a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate. Any absence by McConnell wouldn’t affect partisan control of the chamber. If he were to leave the Senate during his term, Kentucky law requires a temporary replacement from the same party until there’s a new election in the heavily Republican state.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has called that 2021 law unconstitutional and suggested he would challenge it in court. Vikram Amar, a professor of law at the University of Illinois who has examined the Kentucky law, called the law constitutionally “problematic” but questioned whether a court would overturn it.
Earlier this year, McConnell became the longest-Senate party leader ever, surpassing the 15-year record held by Mike Mansfield, a Montana Democrat, for more than four decades.
Relatively few bills have become law without McConnell’s support or at least his acquiescence, thanks to a strong grip on the party’s rank-and-file and the Senate’s filibuster rule.
He’s played a key role in numerous budget deals, crafting bills to avert or end government shutdowns and debt limit crises, with the next major deadline just a month away when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
At the Wednesday event, shortly before falling silent, he said of the current budget conflict, “Honestly, it’s a pretty big mess.”
Read More: McConnell Freezes at News Conference, Raising Health Questions
He played a unique role on Ukraine behind the scenes, repeatedly urging the White House to raise its spending requests, while criticizing Biden for delays in providing more advanced weapons, and helped smooth the way for an expansion of NATO in the war’s wake.
If McConnell steps down from his leadership post, it would set off a leadership scramble, with three Republicans — Thune, John Cornyn of Texas, and John Barrasso of Wyoming, seen as most likely to contend for the top spot.
Thune is the Republican whip, a post Cornyn held until he was term-limited out, and Barrasso now serves as the party’s No. 3 elected leader.
Rick Scott of Florida also challenged McConnell’s leadership last year, complaining of a lack of an agenda, after Republicans failed to win the majority. Scott had been in charge of the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2022 elections.
The GOP relies heavily on McConnell’s fundraising prowess. The Senate Leadership Fund, a Super-PAC allied with McConnell, spent more than $246 million in last year’s elections, according to Open Secrets. That’s more than any other outside group seeking to affect the outcome of elections in 2022.
McConnell personally raised $65.9 million for his 2020 campaign, the last time he was up for reelection. His opponent, Amy McGrath, out-raised McConnell by $28.2 million, but he he won with 57.8% of the vote, suggesting it’s an uphill climb for Democrats to pick up that seat when it comes up in 2026.
--With assistance from Steven T. Dennis, Akayla Gardner, Laura Davison, Erik Wasson and Ryan Teague Beckwith.
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