Mitch McConnell, the 81-year-old Republican leader in the US Senate who suffered a public health scare this week, should step down from the role he has filled since 2007, an unnamed GOP senator said.
McConnell, from Kentucky, remains “intellectually sharp” on “a whole host of issues including baseball”, the anonymous senator told NBC News.
But they added: “People think that he’s not hearing well. I think that he is just not processing.”
At a news conference on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, McConnell stopped talking mid-sentence, standing mutely for 23 seconds until he was led away from reporters.
He returned to say: “I’m fine.”
The moment sparked worries about McConnell’s mental fitness, especially after he was hospitalised and treated for a concussion and a broken rib after a fall in March and amid reports of “multiple” falls this year, including a slip on a snowy day in Finland. McConnell had polio as a child, affecting his gait as an adult.
On Thursday, NBC, which reported a fall at Reagan airport this month – described as a “face plant” by one witness – said Republicans were publicly backing McConnell to carry on.
“I don’t know how much longer he will want to serve, but I support him as long as he wants the job,” said John Cornyn of Texas, a possible successor.
But NBC also said other Republicans, speaking off the record, were not quite so sure.
The anonymous senator told NBC “I kind of do” think McConnell should step down.
“I’d hate to see it forced on him,” the senator said. “You can do these things with dignity, or it becomes less dignified. And I hope he does it in a dignified way – for his own legacy and reputation.”
The senator also told NBC McConnell was relying more on his lieutenants, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Thune of South Dakota.
“Lately … he’s not the go-to guy for, ‘How are things going?’ … It’s been noticeable in the last few weeks.”
On Friday, McConnell’s office said he planned to serve his full term, which would runs through 2026, when he would turn 84.
McConnell’s freeze was just the latest reminder that the most US leaders are much older than many in other democracies.
Joe Biden, 80, is the oldest ever president, nearly two decades older than the median age of world leaders, which Pew Research found to be 62. While Biden is younger than President Paul Biya of Cameroon, who at 89 is the oldest head of state, the US president could be a grandfather to Gabriel Boric, the president of Chile, or Sanna Marin, who stepped down as prime minister of Finland last month. Both are 37.
Biden is, however, years younger than some members of Congress.
McConnell is not the oldest senator. The Vermont independent Bernie Sanders is 81, the Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley is 89 and the California Democrat Dianne Feinstein is 90.
At a Senate hearing on Thursday, Feinstein had to be prompted by a fellow senator and a staffer after appearing to misunderstand a point of procedure. Calls for Feinstein to retire have multiplied after she was absent from Washington for an extended period this year. She has said she will complete her term.
Many lawmakers in Congress are in their 70s. The median age of the Senate is 65.3, the website FiveThirtyEight calculated, the oldest ever, versus a median age of 38.8 in the US as a whole. At 64, the Senate has the seventh-highest average age of any global parliamentary body, the Inter-Parliamentary Union calculates, ahead of countries with older populations including Japan, Italy and Greece.
Biden’s age has raised questions about whether he should stand for a second term. The president recently fell on stage in Colorado, walks with a careful gait and is prone to verbal slips. He may face Donald Trump, 77, at the polls in 2024. Polling shows many Americans think neither should run.
Asked about Biden’s age, the White House points to accomplishments including the 2020 election victory, helping Democrats stave off losses in 2022 and getting legislation through Congress.