The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For senators’ health updates, full transparency is case by case

The Senate has had a rush of health-related absences this year, most recently with Minority Leader McConnell

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) departs after speaking at a news conference on Capitol Hill on March 7 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Almost every time a president’s health update arrives, it comes from a medical expert. Such was the case earlier this month when President Biden’s longtime physician revealed a minor form of skin cancer had been removed from his chest.

But no custom exists for members of Congress, not even the highest-ranking members of leadership. Instead, lawmakers suffering from various ailments will offer variations of often hopeful, but quite vague, statements about their prognosis.

“In the end, it’s got to be between that senator and their constituents, and there’s no formula, I don’t think, and I think it’s better to err on the side of transparency and to provide as much information as possible,” Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said Tuesday.

This issue drew intense political attention last year during the Pennsylvania Senate campaign, after John Fetterman (D-Pa.), then a candidate, suffered a stroke and took more than two months off the campaign trail amid Republican accusations he was not healthy enough for the job. That issue came up again last month when now-Sen. Fetterman faced a serious enough bout with depression, common after a stroke, that he checked into inpatient care.

Now, after a fall last week that left him with a concussion and a broken rib, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) joined Fetterman in the tally of sidelined senators residing in an inpatient rehabilitation center without a clear timeline for his return to his duties helping run the Senate.

This status has left not just constituents but also other senators somewhat in the dark about how their colleagues are doing.

“I’ve texted but I, you know, I think that report is something that should come from [McConnell’s] staff,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters Monday evening, leaving a leadership meeting in McConnell’s office that he ran.

Thune acknowledged he has not spoken verbally to the GOP leader, who spent five days in a hospital before transferring to a rehabilitation facility.

Asked if he had updates about McConnell, Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.), the GOP’s top Senate campaign architect, responded, “No, I don’t.”

“His official office will be providing updates, but I’ve been texting back and forth with him.”

It appears no Senate Republican has spoken directly to McConnell, other than via text, nor has Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) or Biden.

To Casey, who recently endured his own surgery to battle prostate cancer, that’s perfectly fine. That’s exactly how he has approached dealing with Fetterman since the junior senator entered Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Feb. 16.

“I’ve purposely, intentionally, not called him, because he doesn’t need me to be talking to him on the phone,” Casey said. “He’s got to get the help that he needs and get through it.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who spent five days in a California hospital for shingles, returned home March 7 and has not been back to the Senate since. Feinstein, 89, earlier this year announced she will not run for reelection.

Advisers to Fetterman, 53, and McConnell, 81, have issued similarly worded statements from staff that gave broad outlines but did not go into medical detail about their conditions, each including a brief optimistic prognosis.

“Remains on a path to recovery,” Fetterman’s top press aide said Feb. 28.

“Recovery is proceeding well,” McConnell’s top press aide said Monday.

Fetterman’s advisers have posted pictures of him at Walter Reed with staff and suggested it will be a “weeks-long” process. McConnell’s advisers say privately that he is getting briefed by staff and talking with them, suggesting it could be a couple weeks of inpatient rehab before he returns home.

If neither senator returns by the end of this month, the Senate begins a long Easter recess on March 30 that will keep the chamber closed for legislative business until April 17.

Senators acknowledge that their individual health is a highly sensitive matter that gets handled on a case-by-case basis in terms of public revelations.

“You’re asking a question that really deserves a good answer,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has battled effects of long covid for several years, said Wednesday. “I’ve just kind of felt as I’ve gone.”

None other than Sen. Joe Biden, in 1988, missed seven months of time in the chamber as he recovered from a brain aneurysm, greeted with bipartisan acclaim when he returned.

In January 2013, then-Vice President Biden greeted Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) as he climbed up the steps into the Senate chamber on his first day back after a stroke kept him from the Capitol for a year.

More recently, Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) received a bipartisan cheer last March upon returning from a month’s leave when he suffered a stroke. After waiting a couple days to make the stroke public, Luján eventually posted a video with two doctors from the University of New Mexico Hospital who went into detail about his stroke and recovery.

McConnell has a recent history of being less than forthcoming about his health. In October 2020, just a couple weeks before asking Kentucky voters for a seventh six-year term, he was seen around the Capitol with severely bruised hands and a puffed up lip that he declined to explain.

“I’m just fine. And I can’t believe y’all have played with that all week long,” he said, complaining about media coverage in an interview at the time.

When he fell on his driveway in Louisville in August 2019, McConnell suffered a fractured shoulder that kept him out of the public for more than a month while the Senate was on its annual late summer recess.

His closest allies don’t feel as if McConnell owes any greater information about the fall, which occurred last Wednesday after a GOP donor dinner at a downtown Washington hotel.

“I know you all want more, but I think it’s pretty clear to me what happened and what the course of his treatment is, so I don’t know what else they could tell you,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said Wednesday.

Fetterman faced attacks from Republicans throughout his race, with accusations that he had not revealed enough information about his recovery. As it turned out, exit polls showed voters cared more about his opponent’s longtime residency in New Jersey than Fetterman’s health.

After undergoing so-far successful prostate surgery last month, Casey said he has opened up about his medical procedure, maybe even in “too much detail” given its sensitive nature.

Kaine hid his own battles with long covid for months, figuring it would just go away. Finally, after talking to doctors, he realized his condition would be with him awhile and that many others suffering similar conditions struggled to get people to believe them.

He decided to speak out, to inform his constituents and give others a voice. “So that people will know that there’s somebody on the health committee who definitely believes them,” Kaine said.

He said that other lawmakers are suffering also from the pandemic’s long after effect, but don’t want to discuss it publicly. He respects their decision, but hopes they will step forward,

“Everybody’s got to make their own decision,” Kaine said, “but I hope more will talk about it.”