Updated Aug 31, 2023 - Politics & Policy

McConnell's scary moment raises age limit questions for Congress — again

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

After his second freeze on camera in as many months, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will face a question that has been swirling around the Senate and the presidential race all year: How old is too old to serve?

Why it matters: At 81, McConnell is the longest serving party leader in Senate history, using his mastery of Senate procedure to bedevil Democrats and reshape the federal judiciary.

Yes, but: For the first time in his career, McConnell may not be entirely in control of his own timeline.

  • Age, and his physical health, will have a vote.
  • Immediately after his scary moment, his office announced that he would consult a doctor before his next event.
  • But aides also downplayed the event, suggesting that a plainly confused and disoriented McConnell was simply "lightheaded"

The big picture: In the presidential campaign, voters routinely say that both President Biden and former President Trump, the likely GOP nominee, lack the youth and vigor for the job.

  • In a recent AP-NORC poll, some 77% of adults said Biden, 80, is too old for a second term.
  • While Trump, 77, has made it clear that he plans to mock Biden for age, more than half of voters think the same of him.
  • In the Senate, one of Biden's longtime friends, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), 90, sometimes appears confused, leading to calls from fellow Democrats to step down.

Driving the news: After his freeze, McConnell promptly called fellow senators and allies, but he left it to others to describe his condition.

  • Through an aide, Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) relayed that McConnell sounded like himself and was in good spirits.
  • Later in the evening, McConnell meet with Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) who is running for the Senate in Indiana. Banks posted a photo with McConnell on X.
  • "He was engaging," Banks told Axios. "Very dialed in on my race and following closely."

At the White House, Biden expressed his sympathy for his fellow octogenarian. "He's a good friend. I'm going to try and get in touch with him later this afternoon," he said.

What we're watching: McConnell is unlikely to face an immediate challenge as minority leader, according to top Republican officials.

  • And don't expect any of his would-be replacements — the so-called "three Johns" that includes Thune and Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and John Barrasso (Wyo.) — to start making calls to colleagues, fishing for support.
  • But seasoned Republicans privately acknowledge that the public line from the leader's office – that the Kentucky senator simply felt lightheaded – will likely be updated.

Flashback: In March, McConnell was hospitalized with a concussion after suffering a serious fall at a fundraising dinner.

Between the lines: Senators will return from their August recess on Tuesday for what promises to be a busy, and brutal, month of legislative brinksmanship, with a potential government shutdown looming.

  • They are now bracing for questions about McConnell's health and fitness to govern when they head to their first votes.

Go deeper: Some Democrats privately worry that any conversation about any politician's age draws attention to Biden's own advanced years.

  • White House officials have taken steps to minimize the risk of physical mishaps that might reinforce perception about Biden's age, like using the shorter steps to board Air Force One.
  • In late June, after close-up photos showed unexplained lines on Biden's face, officials acknowledged that the president had been using a CPAP machine in response to his sleep apnea.
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