McConnell faces career-defining test in Trump battle over Ukraine, border

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Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) will face one of the toughest challenges of his career this week when he tries to muster Senate Republicans to vote for a Ukraine funding and border security package that former President Trump wants to kill.

McConnell’s initial goal, according to Senate GOP colleagues, was to get a border security deal that would have the support of at least half of his conference, which numbers 49 members.

It now appears the defense supplemental spending bill, which includes the border security provisions as well as funding for Ukraine, Israel and Indo-Pacific security, will get less Republican support than that.

Aides are predicting between 12 and 20 Senate GOP votes for the bill, and that the vote total will shift as lawmakers digest the text of the legislation, which was finally made public Sunday evening.

The stakes are high for the 81-year-old Senate Republican leader, as he will come under significant pressure from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other conservative critics to abandon the bill if it doesn’t look like it will get much more than 10 GOP votes.

But if the legislation gets between 18 and 25 Senate Republican votes, that will then put heavy pressure on Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) to take the bill up in the House, despite his earlier declaration it would likely be “dead on arrival” in the lower chamber.

McConnell declined to say last week whether he would favor moving ahead with a bill that had support from only a minority of his conference, and acknowledged he doesn’t know exactly how the debate will play out.

“It’s certainly been a challenge,” he admitted when asked if it was a mistake to link Ukraine aid to border security reform. “But it’s time for us to move something, hopefully including a border agreement. But we need to get help to Israel and to Ukraine quickly.”

Senate Republicans say McConnell has employed a soft-glove approach to persuading his Republican colleagues to support the bill, regularly reminding them of the national security threats facing the country and also of the fact that Trump pleaded with Congress to reform the nation’s asylum laws when he was president in 2018.

“It’s really about reading the room and persuading where you can and listening where you can’t. He’s very good at all of that. His voice isn’t as loud as it used to be. I think that’s by his choice. I also think it’s also reflective of the situation we’re in right now. There are some people that feel … strongly about the different sides of this issue,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).

McConnell is under withering criticism from his antagonists within the Republican conference, who are jumping on the issue to take shots at his leadership.

Cruz is leading the pressure campaign not to allow the bipartisan border security deal to reach the Senate floor, arguing it will put the new Speaker in a terrible position and give cover to vulnerable Senate Democrats up for reelection.

“As a result of this foolhardy bill, Senate Democrats are out now beating their chests that the problem would now be solved if only” Republicans would back it, Cruz told The Hill.

He says it’s the latest example of Senate GOP leaders “negotiating bad deals behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms” and trying to “ram them down the throat” of the GOP conference.

And he says Senate Republicans who support the border security deal are “behaving like the political arm of Chuck Schumer’s team,” referring to the Senate Democratic leader.

But McConnell’s allies say his critics within the Senate GOP conference are usually the same group of people: Cruz and Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.).

“We kind of hear the same things from the same guys, day after day and week after week,” complained one GOP senator who supports McConnell’s efforts to get the emergency defense spending bill through both chambers.

McConnell is relying heavily on his top deputy, Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), to explain the details of the legislation to skeptical members of his conference, and also to manage their expectations, given stiff opposition from Trump and many House conservatives.

“My goal is to try and let the conference come to a collective decision about how they want to proceed and deal with this,” said Thune, who has urged GOP colleagues to keep “their powder dry” on blasting away at the legislation until they have a chance to read it.

But Thune warned that if the deal gains only weak support from the conference, McConnell may decide to pivot to a Ukraine funding bill without border security reforms.

“If we don’t have a strong vote coming out of here, if we don’t have a lot of Republicans behind it, then we’ll probably end up having to pivot,” he said.

GOP senators say McConnell has taken a while to recover from the concussion and fractured rib he suffered after falling at a March 2023 dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in Washington, D.C.

Several lawmakers said he doesn’t speak as much at conference meetings as he used to but will interject at key moments to nudge the internal debate in one direction or another.

McConnell has reminded fellow GOP senators in recent weeks not to get too enmeshed into partisan skirmishing over President Biden’s border policies, and to remember about the serious national security threats posed by Russia, China and Iran.

He says the United States now faces the most serious international situation it has since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Cramer said the debate over the Ukraine-border security package is “a harder one than most,” but despite the staunch differences among Republican senators, he thinks McConnell is focused on the party’s best political interests as well as achieving the best policy outcome.

Several Republican senators say winning back the Senate majority in the 2024 election will be more important to McConnell’s future as leader than whether he can get money for Ukraine passed through the Senate this year.

“I don’t think he would take a momentary victory over a longer-term governing majority,” Cramer said. “This will certainly be the easiest time in recent history and going forward to regain the majority. And if we don’t, it’s going to be very, very hard to get it back for a long time.

“He’s pragmatic that way,” he said.

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