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What GOP colleagues are saying about their confidence in McConnell's leadership

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had to address questions about his health when he returned to work at the Capitol this week. The 81-year-old froze twice in public over the summer. McConnell is making the case that he is still up to his job where he has - to the delight of allies and the dismay of opponents - been a master for many years. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh has more on McConnell's support among his colleagues.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, a longtime ally of McConnell's, said it was important for him to put his cards on the table about his health.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN CORNYN: Senator McConnell is famous for keeping his cards close to the vest.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Yes.

CORNYN: He's very good at it.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Yes.

CORNYN: And usually, it serves him well, but not in this case.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Did he address this...

CORNYN: So I think transparency does serve him more.

WALSH: Hours before McConnell returned to the Capitol on Tuesday, he released a statement from Dr. Brian Monahan, the Capitol physician, who examined him and said he didn't have a stroke or a seizure or a movement disorder like Parkinson's. On Wednesday, McConnell met behind closed doors with his colleagues. That seemed to satisfy Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville, who raised concerns a day earlier and wanted to see McConnell face-to-face.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOMMY TUBERVILLE: He would do the right thing if he felt like he couldn't do it 'cause it's getting ready to be a very tough election year. Any leader has got to be out there going, raising money, doing all that. So, hey, he convinced me.

WALSH: McConnell later pushed back on giving more details, insisting the statement from the Capitol physician was adequate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: I think Dr. Monahan covered the subject fully.

WALSH: Pressed for specifics about what condition did cause his health episodes, McConnell declined to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCONNELL: I don't have anything to add to it, and I think it should answer any reasonable question.

WALSH: McConnell is the longest-serving Senate leader. He worked in several leadership posts for more than two decades. Most Republicans, like Mitt Romney of Utah, had no concerns about McConnell continuing in his post.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

WALSH: Indiana Senator Todd Young agreed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TODD YOUNG: I trust that Senator McConnell will continue to lead our conference in coming weeks, months, perhaps even years.

WALSH: One critic of McConnell's, Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley, was one of 11 senators who didn't vote for McConnell when he was reelected leader in 2022. He linked McConnell's age to President Biden's.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH HAWLEY: If you're asking me if I'm concerned about his health, yeah, of course I am. I'm concerned about the president's health.

WALSH: Hawley says in the next election for leader, he doesn't want a secret ballot. But he admitted there was no appetite to replace McConnell now. There are three Johns - John Cornyn from Texas, John Thune of South Dakota and John Barrasso of Wyoming - who are interested in running for leader if McConnell steps down or retires. Cornyn stressed he's supporting McConnell as long as he wants the top job. But he also told reporters why he thinks he could eventually take McConnell's place.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORNYN: He's trained me. Everything I've learned about the Senate, I've learned from Senator McConnell.

WALSH: McConnell hasn't said whether he'll run for leader in 2024 or run for reelection in 2026. And when reporters tried to get an answer, McConnell returned to form, keeping his cards close to his vest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCONNELL: I have no announcements to make on that subject.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: But what do you say to those who are...

MCCONNELL: I'm going to finish my term as leader, and I'm going to finish my Senate term.

WALSH: He also made a point to show his health isn't getting in the way of raising money for Senate campaigns. McConnell raised nearly $50 million in August.

Deirdre Walsh, NPR News, the Capitol. 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.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.

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