Barrasso Stands by McConnell as GOP Leaders Duck Questions About Health

‘Wyoming’s Doctor’ defends the longtime Senate leader’s fitness, but other colleagues aren’t so sure

  • Published In: Politics
  • Last Updated: Sep 07, 2023

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) has continued to defend Sen. Mitch McConnell amid growing questions about his health. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

By Jacob Gardenswartz

Special to the Wyoming Truth

WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) met with his full Republican conference on Wednesday for the first time since he appeared frozen for close to 30 seconds while speaking with reporters in his home state last week, the second such public episode in a matter of months.

But despite growing questions about the longtime Senate leader’s fitness, McConnell, 81, was defiant in his intentions to continue serving in Congress. “I’m going to finish my term as leader, and I’m going to finish my Senate term,” he said curtly, refusing to engage with reporters any further on the subject.

The Kentucky Republican’s health troubles and the resulting discussion of possible successors has thrust Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) further into the spotlight. The number three Republican in the Senate, Barrasso is among the so-called “three Johns” on the shortlist for future GOP leader — joined by Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

But like the other GOP leaders, Barrasso, too, has thus far dodged questions about McConnell’s health, even as some members of his party have been more vocal with their concerns.

Delivering brief remarks during Wednesday’s GOP leadership press conference, Barrasso did not address McConnell’s health at all, instead using his time to criticize President Joe Biden’s economic policies. On Tuesday, he told reporters he was “really happy to see that [McConnell’s] MRI was normal, to see that the EEG was normal, that he’s had neurologic evaluations.”

McConnell was defiant on Wednesday, promising to finish serving out his term in office and refusing to engage with reporters about his health. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein) 

“The report put out today by Dr. Monahan was very encouraging and very good,” he added.

The report to which Barrasso was referring came in the form of a brief letter from Dr. Brian Monahan, the attending physician of Congress, to McConnell. In it, Monahan claimed there is “no evidence that you have a seizure disorder or that you experienced a stroke, TIA or movement disorder such as Parkinson’s disease.” He went on to recommend no changes to his treatment protocols, as McConnell continues to recover from a bad fall earlier this year which left him with a concussion.

McConnell, on Wednesday, said he had “nothing to add” to Monahan’s characterization of the situation: “I think he pretty well covered the subject.”

Yet not everyone appears convinced by Monahan’s attestations. Fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, himself an ophthalmologist, has repeatedly questioned the attending physician’s findings in recent days.

“The problem with saying someone has a normal EEG, and saying they’re not having seizures, is that people who have short seizures, well over 80% of them have normal EEGs,” Paul told reporters Tuesday, adding that “an EEG that’s done at one time on an office visit often will miss things.”

Paul was quick to clarify that he believes McConnell has been “up to the task” thus far and was not intending to criticize McConnell’s leadership. Instead, he was providing “a criticism of the way it’s being handled publicly by giving a diagnosis that everybody thinks is a lot less than what it actually is.”

Asked repeatedly whether he shared any of Paul’s concerns and about his perceptions of McConnell’s fitness more broadly, Barrasso — an orthopedist who first made a name for himself appearing regularly on TV programs as “Wyoming’s Doctor” — did not respond.

McConnell’s health raises stakes for packed fall calendar

Even before McConnell’s second freezing episode, lawmakers were in for a tough few months upon returning from the summer recess.

Chief on everyone’s mind is the looming Sept. 30 shutdown date, after which many portions of the U.S. government will run out of money unless Congress acts. Though House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) hashed out a deal with Biden on government funding amounts during the standoff over the debt ceiling earlier this year, some conservative lawmakers have since balked at those numbers and claimed they won’t back any funding bill without greater cuts.

In his first remarks on the Senate floor since returning to Washington on Tuesday, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer stressed that “a shutdown will hurt just about every single American,” taking specific aim at “an extreme 30 or 40 members filling out a wish list that they know can’t pass.”

And McConnell himself acknowledged the need to “keep the lights on from October 1” — even as he attacked the Biden administration’s spending policies. Leaders of both parties have privately acknowledged they’ll likely have to pass a so-called “continuing resolution,” or short-term funding extension, to give lawmakers more time to hash out a compromise.

Beyond setting next year’s budget, there’s also the question of Biden’s $40 billion supplemental budget request for this year. The president asked for money to assist with disaster relief and provide more military and humanitarian support to Ukraine, among other priorities.

Though majorities of both parties have voiced support for providing more funding for disaster relief efforts, Republicans are split on how to approach Ukraine. McConnell has backed America’s continued support for the war effort, acknowledging that though there are “differences of opinion in my party on this,” he nonetheless believes “maintaining our support for Ukraine is extremely important.”

But as the party’s right flank has grown increasingly opposed to American support for Ukraine, even some of the more vocal advocates for Ukraine’s defenses have found themselves squeezed. Appearing on Fox News earlier this summer, Barrasso said that though he supported providing military assistance to Ukraine, “we cannot shoulder this burden alone.”

Back in Wyoming, Barrasso has faced increasing attacks from GOP primary challenger Reid Rasner over his support for the war effort. And in a statement to the Wyoming Truth Wednesday, Rasner took more shots at Barrasso over his continued support of McConnell.

“Senator McConnell has held office for four decades, and it’s time for new leadership,” Rasner said. “John Barrasso’s silence on these matters is deafening.”

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