Mar 23, 2023 - Politics & Policy

GOP senators see impact if McConnell's not back soon

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (left) and Leader Mitch McConnell. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Some of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) Republican colleagues say his absence from the Senate could be a problem if he doesn't return in the coming weeks.

  • McConnell was treated for a concussion and a minor rib fracture after falling at a fundraising dinner this month. After he was discharged from the hospital last week, his office said he would undergo physical therapy at a separate facility before returning home.

Why it matters: McConnell's Republican colleagues see some concern on the horizon about the impact his absence could have — both as a reliable floor vote and elected leader.

  • In a chamber with 48 Democrats, 49 Republicans and three Democratic-leaning independents, every vote counts.
  • "I wish we had one more vote on some of the CRAs coming up," said Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), referring to resolutions aimed at overturning Biden administration regulations that can pass the 100-member Senate with 51 votes. "I think that'll be a challenge next week, to see who's here and who's not."
  • McConnell isn't the only senator who's missed time recently: Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has battled shingles, and John Fetterman (D-Pa.) is being treated for depression.
  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he has "not yet" seen McConnell's absence having broader ramifications, but believes it could: "He provides strategic guidance and things of that nature."

Zoom in: McConnell's lieutenants have been steering the ship this month, with his No. 2, Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), presiding over leadership lunches and press conferences.

  • "He's doing a great job," Marshall said of Thune, also citing the stewardship of Senate GOP Conference Chair John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Policy Committee Chair Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

What we're hearing: Several Senate Republicans told Axios that McConnell and his staff have conveyed the GOP leader's desire to get back to the Senate as quickly as possible.

  • "We've been getting reports. It sounds like he's antsy to get back into the swing of things," Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).
  • "He’s doing better," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a McConnell confidante, said Tuesday. Cornyn said he's one of a few senators who have spoken with McConnell recently.

Between the lines: Just because he's not at work doesn't mean McConnell isn't keeping tabs on the comings and goings of his colleagues.

  • "I can guarantee he'll know what we're having for lunch today," Marshall said.
  • Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said: "Last week he was joking about my lobster lunch, and how offensive he thought that might be to [Maine Sen.] Susan Collins."
  • "His presence is here and it’s known every day that the lights are on," said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who added that he's exchanged texts with McConnell.

What we're watching: It's unclear when McConnell will return to the Senate.

  • "I hear he's probably going to be back next week," Sen. Rand Paul said of his fellow Kentucky Republican.
  • But Rounds said "there's been no date given to us," adding, "We had assumed it would probably be next week, but it sounds like he took a pretty good fall."
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