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McConnell prepares for a busy month amid scrutiny over his ability to lead

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Senators are back to work in Washington today, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: The Senate reconvenes with our work cut out for us and a deadline fast approaching. I hope each of our colleagues has returned ready to do their part.

SHAPIRO: Congress is preparing for a busy month ahead, including the potential for a government shutdown. And there's intense scrutiny around McConnell, his health and his ability to lead. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following all of this. Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: OK. So McConnell's suffered two recent incidents in public where he appeared to freeze up, apparently unable to speak. Do we know anything more about what caused either event?

SNELL: Basically, no - his office released a letter from the attending physician of the Capitol, Brian Monahan, that listed health concerns he had ruled out, like a stroke, a seizure disorder or Parkinson's disease. But, you know, he notably didn't say what he suspects could be the actual cause. McConnell has been under huge pressure to disclose more about his condition. Two public incidents raised real questions about his condition outside of those very carefully controlled moments. You know, Monahan also said he is not recommending any changes to McConnell's treatment plan for the concussion he suffered about six months ago back in March.

SHAPIRO: Why is McConnell's presence so important at this moment in Congress?

SNELL: Well, a lot of the focus on spending and the spending fight has been around disagreements between Democrats, and the White House in particular, and House Republicans. Speaker McCarthy agreed to certain spending levels in the debt limit deal he reached with President Biden earlier this year. And House conservatives have insisted on cutting spending much lower than that deal. McCarthy went along with their demands, and the White House says they won't accept those House bills. But what's really been lost in all of this is that McConnell doesn't support what McCarthy's doing either. He actually made that point at the same press conference in Kentucky where he froze most recently. He said he supported the agreement McCarthy and Biden reached before.

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MCCONNELL: The House then turned around and passed spending levels that were below that level. Without saying an opinion about that, that's not going to be replicated in the Senate.

SNELL: Yeah. So one thing to know about McConnell is that he often uses end-of-August press events back in Kentucky to kind of set the tone or, you know, set a message for Senate Republicans for when they return to Washington. His comments get picked up and repeated, essentially giving Republicans who've been away for a month early talking points about where the party is on important issues. And that's part of the way he uses his power as leader. And those were not the comments that were picked up and repeated. It was him freezing and questions about his health that was repeated.

SHAPIRO: But as we look at these spending fights, important to note, he says, the spending cuts the House passed are not going to be repeated in the Senate. So is this just an issue of messaging and control for McConnell or are there bigger issues for how Republicans will govern?

SNELL: You know, that is the question we're going to be trying to answer this week. McConnell is known for his ability to usually get at least enough Republicans on board with his position for him to prevail. In this case, he's pretty firmly rejecting those spending cuts in the upcoming funding process. Not only that, but the Senate Appropriations Committee already passed all 12 of the regular spending bills with Republican support. And that's the first time this has happened in five years. But there is intense pressure from conservatives in the House for a Republican senator to just walk away and join them in demanding cuts.

SHAPIRO: The spending bills are high stakes. Is there more on the line than just that?

SNELL: Yeah, absolutely. There's also the issue of military promotions. Senator Tommy Tuberville is still blocking promotions, which has forced acting officers to fill really critical roles, including slots on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. You know, the term unprecedented gets thrown around a lot. But in this case, it is truly a situation that we haven't seen before. Democrats and even some Republicans are asking McConnell to intervene to resolve that. And there are plenty of other legislative issues ahead in the coming months, plus the potential for the House to begin impeachment proceedings for President Biden. McConnell will be a critical voice within the GOP for all of those things.

SHAPIRO: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, thank you.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.

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