Full transparency applies to Senators’ health updates on a case-by-case basis

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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 doctor revealed that a minor form of skin cancer had been removed from his chest.

But there is no custom for members of Congress, even for the most senior members of the leadership. Instead, lawmakers suffering from different diseases will offer variations on often hopeful but fairly vague statements about their prognosis.

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

This issue garnered significant political attention during last year’s Pennsylvania Senate campaign after John Fetterman (D-Pa.), then a candidate, suffered a stroke and was sidelined for more than two months amid Republican allegations for the he was not healthy enough to work. That problem resurfaced last month when now Sen. Fetterman was facing depression that was common after a stroke, so he was hospitalized.

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 list of marginalized senators serving in an inpatient rehabilitation center with no clear Timetable for his return lived to perform his duties in leading the Senate.

This status leaves not only voters but other senators in the dark about how their peers are faring.

“I was texting but I, you know, I think that report is something that should come from [McConnell’s] Staff,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (RS.D.) told reporters Monday night, exiting a leadership meeting he chaired at McConnell’s office.

Thune acknowledged that he did not speak verbally to the GOP leader, who spent five days in a hospital before being transferred to a rehab facility.

When asked if he had any news on McConnell, Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.), the GOP’s chief Senate campaign architect, replied, “No, I don’t.”

“His official office will provide updates, but I’ve been in back and forth with him.”

It appears that no Senate Republican spoke directly to McConnell other than via text, nor did Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) or Biden.

For Casey, who recently endured his own surgery to fight prostate cancer, that’s perfectly fine. That’s exactly how he’s dealt with Fetterman since the junior senator entered Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on February 16.

“I intentionally didn’t call him because he doesn’t need me on the phone,” Case said. “He needs to get the help he needs and get through it.”

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

Counselors to Fetterman, 53, and McConnell, 81, have issued similarly worded statements from staff members who gave broad outlines but didn’t go into medical details about their condition, each with a brief optimistic prognosis.

“Stay on the road to recovery,” Fetterman’s chief press secretary said Feb. 28.

“Recovery is progressing well,” McConnell’s chief press secretary said Monday.

Fetterman’s advisers have posted pictures of him at Walter Reed with staff and have indicated it will be a “weeks-long” process. McConnell’s advisers privately say he’s being briefed by and speaking to staff, suggesting it could be a couple of weeks of inpatient rehab before returning home.

If none of the senators return by the end of this month, the Senate will begin a long Easter break on March 30, during which the chamber will remain closed for legislative business until April 17.

Senators recognize that their individual health is a highly sensitive matter that will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis for public disclosure.

“You’re asking a question that really deserves a good answer,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has been battling the effects of Long Covid for several years, said Wednesday. “I just kind of feel like I left.”

None other than Senator Joe Biden missed seven months in the chamber in 1988 while recovering from a brain aneurysm, which was greeted with bipartisan acclaim on his return.

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

More recently, Senator Ben Ray Luján (DN.M.) received a bipartisan cheer last March when he returned from a month’s furlough when he suffered a stroke. After waiting a few days to go public with the stroke, Luján finally released a video with two doctors from the University of New Mexico Hospital going into detail about his stroke and recovery.

McConnell has been less than forthcoming about his health lately. In October 2020, just a few weeks before he was asking Kentucky voters for a seventh six-year term, he was spotted in the Capitol with badly injured hands and a bloated lip that he declined to explain.

“I’m fine. And I can’t believe you guys played with it all week,” he said, complaining about the 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 from the public eye for more than a month while the Senate was on its annual late-summer recess.

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

“I know you all want more, but I think I’m pretty clear on what happened and how his treatment is going, so I don’t know what else they could tell you,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R -Tex. ) said Wednesday.

Fetterman faced attacks throughout his race from Republicans who accused him of not disclosing enough information about his recovery. As it turns out, exit polls showed voters cared more about his opponent’s longtime residency in New Jersey than Fetterman’s health.

After undergoing previously successful prostate surgery last month, Casey said he’s opened up about his medical procedure, perhaps even “too detailed” given its sensitive nature.

Kaine hid his own struggles with long Covid for months, thinking it would just go away. After finally speaking to doctors, he realized that his condition would be with him for a while and that many others suffering from similar conditions were having trouble getting people to believe them.

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

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

“Everyone has to make their own decision,” Kaine said, “but I hope more will talk about it.”

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