Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tried to end questions about his health and political future on Wednesday as the Senate prepares for a busy month of negotiations on federal spending.

Reporters repeatedly asked McConnell to provide specific details of what has caused two incidents where the GOP leader froze at public events in the past two months. McConnell did not answer those questions directly, instead referring reporters to a recent letter from the attending physician of the U.S. Capitol who said McConnell not suffer a seizure, stroke or movement disorder.

"I don't have anything to add to it," McConnell said. "I think it should answer any reasonable questions."

The letter from Dr. Brian Monahan was released by McConnell's office on Tuesday. Monahan said his examination of McConnell following a Aug. 30 incident in Kentucky included "several medical evaluations: brain MRI imaging, EEG study, and consultations with several neurologists for a comprehensive neurology assessment."

McConnell has generally avoided questions about his health since the first incident occurred in July. But the topic was the main focus for reporters when the Senate returned to Washington on Tuesday after a month-long August recess.

Republicans have grown frustrated with the focus, particularly with a September 30 deadline to pass government funding fast approaching. Senate appropriators are getting ready to hold votes on three of the 12 bipartisan spending bills that were already approved in committee. This is the first time in five years that the committee approved the full slate of regular funding bills and many in the Senate would prefer to focus on that.

However, Republican senators said McConnell offered details of his recent exams and health scares during a weekly party lunch in the Capitol.

"He went over the tests he's had, said he's been given a clean bill of health," Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., told reporters. "He indicated he's had two of these episodes and both of them happened to be during press conferences."

Several senators emphasized, as Kennedy did, that the two public incidents were the only times McConnell has reported experiencing those symptoms.

Most Senate Republicans have publicly supported McConnell and few have questioned his ability to lead the party either now or in the future.

"He's got a very small group of people that would even ask the question," said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. "Maybe a handful."

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley was one of 11 Republicans who voted against McConnell serving another term as Senate GOP leader in November. He told reporters that people asked him about McConnell's health throughout the August recess and that he has concerns.

"We've got a chance to take back the Senate," Hawley said. "I just, I hope that we'll be able to be laser focused, that the Senate at least will be laser focused on on retaking the Senate."

McConnell's allies moved to blunt that criticism with new fundraising data. Two outside groups with deep connections to McConnell, Senate Leadership Fund and One Nation, announced Wednesday that they had raised nearly $50 million last month. That money will be spent on Senate campaigns.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's recent freezing episodes have not weakened his grip on power on Capitol Hill. Here's Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney speaking to reporters.


MITT ROMNEY: We might lose 20 seconds a day from Mitch McConnell, but the other 86,380 seconds are just fine. And I'm happy to have him as our leader.

SUMMERS: But McConnell's health and age - he is 81 years old - raised fresh questions about who will lead Senate Republicans after him. Joining us to chew over all of this is NPR political correspondent Susan Davis. Hey, Sue.


SUMMERS: So I mean, Sue, it has been a long time since Senate Republicans have had to think about anyone but Mitch McConnell as their leader, right?

DAVIS: That's right. You know, he has been at the top of the leadership ladder for more than two decades. He previously served as whip - that's the No. 2 position in leadership - under former leader Bill Frist. That was back in the early 2000s. And it was never really in doubt that McConnell would succeed Frist, which he did after the 2006 election. If you put it in perspective this way, only three of the Senate's current 49 Republicans have ever served under a leadership team that did not include Mitch McConnell.

SUMMERS: Wow. So I mean, but at some point, that will happen. So when it does, is there a short list of senators who might be interested in being leader?

DAVIS: Well, Juana, if you're a betting woman, there is decent odds that it would be someone named John.

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

DAVIS: His current No. 2 is John Thune of South Dakota. That would be sort of a natural elevation for him from his current position. John Cornyn of Texas is another name you'll hear, another former whip and close McConnell ally. There's also John Barrasso of Wyoming. He's been serving as conference chair - that's the No. 3 job in leadership - for the past few years. All three of these senators have shown some element of leadership ambition.

And to be clear, they are all very firmly standing behind Mitch McConnell, staying in place for now. One thing that's important to keep in mind when it comes to Senate leadership elections, they just don't happen very often, and they don't tend to be very competitive. The last truly contested race for a Senate top job was back in '94, and that was on the other side of the aisle between two Democrats. Senators tend to work out these kind of questions among themselves and then select a leader without too much of a public fight.

SUMMERS: OK, Sue, so what about senators like Florida Republican Rick Scott? We should remember, he challenged McConnell for leader at the beginning of this Congress.

DAVIS: Yeah.

SUMMERS: And he only received 10 votes. But, I mean, isn't that a sign that some members of the party want to see it move in a different direction?

DAVIS: There is absolutely a divide between this more establishment, McConnell wing of the party - and that usually includes senators who would like to see the party distance itself more from Donald Trump. I would put Cornyn and Thune in that wing. Then there is this more junior, more populous, more Trumpian wing of the Senate conference that would like to see party leadership go in a different direction. Josh Hawley from Missouri is one of those senators. He didn't support McConnell for leader. He still doesn't. And he linked questions about McConnell to those of President Biden.


JOSH HAWLEY: I'm concerned about the president's health. I'm concerned about the minority leader's health. And you can't have it both ways. I mean, you can't say that you're concerned about Joe Biden but you're not concerned about Mitch McConnell.

DAVIS: Hawley also made the point that a lot of this is going to depend on what happens in 2024. Republicans are favored to win the majority, though - grain of salt - they've been favored and loss before. But the kinds of candidates who win next year, are they Trump Republicans? Are they McConnell Republicans? And of course, if Republicans fail to win the majority, there would probably be even more of a push for a shakeup.

SUMMERS: In just a sentence or two, any indication of what McConnell plans to do?

DAVIS: He told Republicans today he intends to serve out his term. Assuming his health holds up and he can make it through this Congress, Republicans won't be confronted with this question until after Election Day.

SUMMERS: NPR political correspondent Susan Davis. Thank you, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLYING LOTUS' "FF4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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