The top Republican in the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell, appeared to freeze up and was unable to answer a question from a reporter at an event in his home state of Kentucky on Wednesday, the second such episode in just over a month.
Video taken by other reporters at the event appeared to show the 81-year-old senator trailing off and staring straight ahead for about 10 seconds after he was asked whether he plans to run for re-election in 2026. The apparent freeze-up came after he admitted he was having trouble hearing the question and asked the reporter to repeat it.
A woman standing at the front of the room with McConnell asked him if he heard the question and repeated it to him, but McConnell still did not answer, the video showed.
“We’re going to need a minute,” the woman then told the room, and she and a man tried to get McConnell to leave the podium. “I’m okay,” McConnell replied, and he stayed to answer two more questions — both of which were repeated by the woman at his side — but he appeared to have difficulty speaking.
The woman then ended the news conference and McConnell left the room, walking slowly.
McConnell, who was first elected to the Senate in 1985 and has served as the top Republican there since 2007, ultimately did not answer the question about whether he will seek another term.
Wednesday’s episode in Covington, Ky., was similar to another incident at the U.S. Capitol in Washington in late July, when McConnell froze and stared straight ahead for about 20 seconds during a news conference.
At that time, he went back to his office with aides and then returned to answer more questions, telling reporters who asked what had happened that he was “fine.”
His office’s only explanation after both episodes was that McConnell was “momentarily lightheaded.” On Wednesday, a spokesperson added McConnell would see a physician before his next event.
Wednesday’s freeze-up came after McConnell had given a 20-minute speech earlier at the event. He appeared more comfortable during that part of the program, discussing the upcoming Senate schedule and joking at one point that his job is like “a groundskeeper at the cemetery. Everybody is under you but nobody is listening.”
The Associated Press reported that McConnell called South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican who is seen as one of his potential successors, after the event Wednesday. McConnell “sounded like his usual self and was in good spirits,'” Thune spokesman, Ryan Wrasse, said.
The mounting series of concerning incidents involving McConnell has raised scrutiny over his health and how much longer he will stay in his leadership position.
In March, McConnell suffered a concussion and a broken rib after falling and hitting his head after a dinner event at a hotel. He did not return to the Senate for almost six weeks. He has been using a wheelchair in the airport while commuting back and forth to Kentucky. Since then, he has appeared to walk more slowly and his speech has sounded more halting.
McConnell had polio in his early childhood and he has long acknowledged some difficulty as an adult in climbing stairs. In addition to his fall in March, he also tripped and fell four years ago at his home in Kentucky, causing a shoulder fracture that required surgery.
Concerns over the advanced ages of American politicians have been growing.
The oldest member of Congress, 90-year-old Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, missed months of work in Washington earlier this year when she was hospitalized for the shingles virus and its side effects. Since her return to work in May, she has traveled the Capitol halls in a wheelchair and has often appeared confused and disoriented. Earlier this month, she had a brief hospital stint after falling in her home.
Feinstein announced earlier this year she would not seek re-election in 2024, but has been criticized for committing to serving the remainder of her final term despite her health issues.
The median age of U.S. senators is 65.3 years, according to the Pew Research Center, trending upward in recent years. The median age of lawmakers in the lower House of Representatives, meanwhile, has fallen to 57.9 years.
A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released this week found 77 per cent of Americans believe U.S. President Joe Biden, 80, is too old to effectively serve a second term in office. The number includes more than two-thirds of Democrats.
Despite the fact former president Donald Trump — who is seeking to return to the White House next year — is only three years younger than Biden, only 51 per cent of U.S. adults in the poll said Trump is too old to serve again.
Two-thirds of those surveyed said they support age limits for presidential and congressional candidates as well as U.S. Supreme Court appointees.
Some younger candidates battling Trump for the Republican nomination, including 51-year-old Nikki Haley and 38-year-old Vivek Ramaswamy, have said they support such age caps.
— With files from the Associated Press