Nearly two weeks after a fall that left him with a concussion and a broken rib, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spoke on the phone with at least three of his Republican colleagues on Tuesday, expressing a desire to get back to the Capitol but not sharing an exact timeline for his return.
The conversations mark the first time McConnell has spoken directly with anyone on his leadership team — apart from exchanging text messages — since his fall. McConnell had also not spoken directly with President Biden and Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who both called shortly after the accident.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s top deputy, said he spoke to him for about five minutes on Tuesday.
“He sounded like Mitch,” Thune said. “Talked about what’s happening on the floor, all the great messages he’d gotten from colleagues while he’s [been recovering].”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said McConnell sounded “eager” to get back.
“He sounded very sharp,” Cornyn said. “I think just frustrated, as you might imagine, having to go through all this.”
McConnell also spoke to another member of his leadership team, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), by phone.
The 81-year-old senator was hospitalized for five days and treated for a concussion after he tripped while attending a private dinner at a Washington hotel on March 8. Last week, McConnell checked into an inpatient rehabilitation center, his spokesman said, where he’ll receive physical therapy before going home.
Given that timeline, it’s unlikely McConnell will return before the Senate begins a long Easter recess on March 30 that will keep the chamber closed for legislative business until April 17.
“I told him not to be in a big hurry, because we’re not doing anything here,” said Cornyn, who added that McConnell didn’t provide a timetable for his return.
McConnell, who recently became the longest-serving Senate leader, has not been directly leading his deputies from afar. But his staff and other members of the leadership team have been “stepping up” in his absence, Thune said.
“He wanted to convey his appreciation for the way that we’ve been working with this staff,” Thune added.
Republican senators downplayed his absence’s effect on the workings of the Senate. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said he had noticed no change in how Senate Republicans operate while McConnell had been absent.
“Mitch is alive and well and doing fine,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “His presence is here.”
The Senate has been plagued by absences in general in recent months, with Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) receiving inpatient treatment for depression and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), 89, still recovering from a bout of shingles. Other members have missed votes for family emergencies.
While health updates on presidents often come from their doctors or medical experts, no such custom exists in Congress, where lawmakers more commonly issue vague statements from spokespeople following medical incidents.
McConnell has a recent history of being less than forthcoming about his health. In October 2020, just a couple of 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 in his driveway in Louisville in August 2019, McConnell suffered a fractured shoulder that kept him out of public for more than a month while the Senate was on its annual late summer recess.
Recovery from a concussion can take a significant amount of time, according to medical experts.
“Concussion is a common problem that can cause lingering symptoms for a while,” including headaches and mood and sleep disturbances, said Wade S. Smith, chief of the neurovascular division at the University of California at San Francisco. “If you have ever had a concussion you know that getting back to normal may take some time.”
A rib fracture can also be “extraordinarily painful” for months, Smith said, although he stressed that he had no firsthand knowledge of McConnell’s condition.