Voices: Injuries and illnesses grind the Senate to a halt

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

On Wednesday evening, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was hospitalised after tripping during a private dinner at a hotel. The fall is concerning given Mr McConnell’s age of 82. His office said that he will “remain in the hospital for a few days of observation and treatment.”

Mr McConnell’s absence feels jarring, considering the fact he’s the longest serving party leader in Senate history (he would have been the longest-serving majority leader but the 2022 midterms denied him that opportunity). Similarly, Mr McConnell survived polio as a child, having experienced daunting physical therapy so he could walk. His absence is difficult to fathom given how synonymous he is with the Senate.

But Mr McConnell’s absence, even if it will only be for brief, accentuates the number of absences occurring in the Senate. Last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California announced she was hospitalised for shingles. This comes after Ms Feinstein, the oldest senator at age 89, announced she would not seek another term. The Democratic senator had long faced critical coverage that scrutinised her declining mental acuity.

Similarly, Senator John Fetterman, the recently elected Democrat from Pennsylvania, checked into Walter Reed Medical Center last month for depression treatment, which in turn came after a brief hospital stay when he experienced light-headedness.

Looming in the background is the fact that Mr Fetterman experienced a stroke right before his Senate primary last May. That led to Mr Fetterman to have difficulty with auditory processing, which means currently he relies on speech-to-text technology.

Republicans have in turn made hay out of Mr Fetterman’s illness and during last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, former president Donald Trump’s son Don Jr called Mr Fetterman “a vegetable” while one vendor sold shirts saying “Biden-Fetterman 2024: It’s a no-brainer,” a reference to the inside joke among conservatives that President Joe Biden has dementia.

But the questions about Mr Fetterman’s health did not appear to deter voters, given that he beat Republican Senate candidate and television physician Mehmet Oz handily in November. In addition, Mr Fetterman submitted a statement to the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee on Thursday during its hearing looking into the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio.

And the Senate continues to hum along, as it voted on Wednesday to roll back Washington DC’s revisions to its criminal code, which Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slammed in comments to me, saying that “supporting statehood in words is not sufficient. We need to support statehood in our governance and in our actions.” Similarly, the Senate is set to confirm a new commissioner for the Internal Revenue Service.

All of this is a reminder both of how fragile the Club of 100 is, but also how the institution is far larger than one singular figure, even someone who towers over it like a mastermind party leader, a long-serving senator or a freshman lawmaker.