The Republican leader in the US Senate, Mitch McConnell, experienced another public health scare on Wednesday when he appeared to freeze for more than 30 seconds while speaking to reporters in his home state, Kentucky.
McConnell, 81, was eventually escorted away by staff, footage from an NBC News affiliate showed.
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Asked for his thoughts about running for re-election in 2026, McConnell laughed and said: “Oh, that’s a … ” He then appeared to freeze.
Coming to his side, an aide said: “Did you hear the question, senator? Running for re-election in 2026?”
McConnell did not answer. The aide said, “All right, I’m sorry you all, we’re gonna need a minute.” Another aide exchanged quiet words with the senator, who said: “OK.” The first aide asked for another question, saying: “Please speak up.”
The aide repeated questions loudly into McConnell’s ear. He gave quiet, halting answers.
Told, “It’s a question about Trump,” McConnell said he would not comment on the presidential race “on the Democratic side or the Republican side”.
The two aides then escorted McConnell away.
The incident came a little more than a month after McConnell appeared to freeze while talking to reporters at the US Capitol in Washington.
McConnell returned to answer questions then, saying he had been “sandbagged” – a reference to remarks by the 80-year-old president, Joe Biden, after he tripped and fell at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado in June.
The Washington incident was followed by reports of McConnell suffering multiple falls, including one in March that left him with concussion and a rib fracture, keeping him away from Washington.
McConnell called the South Dakota senator 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.
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.”
Elected to the Senate in 1984, McConnell became Republican leader in 2006. Now the longest-serving Senate party leader in history, he has earned a reputation for ruthlessly partisan operations, memorably describing himself as “stronger than mule piss” when it came to stocking the supreme court with conservative justices.
Aides have said McConnell will stay in his role as Republican leader until the end of his term, in 2026. Were he to vacate the role before that, his temporary replacement would be appointed by the governor of Kentucky. Andy Beshear is a Democrat but state law says he must pick from a shortlist named by the same party as the retiree. Democrats hold the Senate 51-49, with vulnerable senators up for re-election in Republican-run states next year.
Public incidents involving McConnell and other ageing politicians, particularly the 90-year-old California Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, have stoked growing public opinion that too many party leaders and grandees have put off retirement too long.
Biden was 78 when he was inaugurated president, the oldest ever, and would be 86 at the end of his second term if he wins re-election next year. On Tuesday, the Guardian reported that a new book about Biden’s presidency, based on access to his trusted advisers, says Biden has often told aides he is tired.
After the incident in Kentucky on Wednesday, the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said Biden, a senator from Delaware from 1973 to 2009, would wish McConnell well.
Biden later told reporters he would try to get in touch with his “good friend” and would “wish him well”.
A spokesperson for McConnell told reporters the senator had “felt momentarily lightheaded” and would consult a doctor before his next event.
Dean Phillips, a Democratic congressman from Minnesota, said: “For goodness sake, the family, friends and staff of senators Feinstein and McConnell are doing them and our country a tremendous disservice. It’s time for term limits for Congress and the supreme court, and some basic human decency.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report