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Mitch McConnell

Inside Senate Republicans’ big gamble on Ukraine and border security

In the modern Congress, one sure way to kill a popular idea is to link its prospects to lawmakers’ ability to pass something — anything — related to immigration.

Senate Republicans are about to test that theory for Ukraine aid.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared in no uncertain terms on Tuesday that Republicans won’t support a massive foreign-aid package — including Ukraine funding — without a GOP-approved fix for the U.S.-Mexico border. This includes policy changes, as well as more money.

“Everybody knows how strongly I feel about helping Ukraine — and Israel,” McConnell told reporters. “[But] the border needs to be a part of it if it’s going to clear the Senate.”

It’s a major gamble to tie Ukraine, or any issue, to immigration policy given Congress’ horrendous track record on the issue and the built-in political challenges. So this demand could imperil the larger package and, in turn, dash McConnell’s hopes for robust new Ukraine funding that would last through the 2024 elections.

But it’s also an acknowledgment of the new political reality McConnell finds himself in. Ukraine has become so toxic for the GOP base that even the party’s staunchest Ukraine supporters feel they can’t justify any new spending on its own. Hence the border-security demands. Yet Ukraine remains a top priority for McConnell, who views countering Russian aggression as a key element of his legacy.

In fact, the GOP’s deepening divisions over Ukraine have forced McConnell to constantly reevaluate his strategy for getting an aid package to President Joe Biden’s desk.

At the last government-funding deadline in late September, McConnell pushed to include even a small amount of Ukraine funding in the stopgap. Ukraine ultimately was left out, and defense hawks in both parties now see the window for passing new aid closing fast.

There are some reasons for optimism here by McConnell and the White House, however.

Even though Democrats are denouncing Republicans’ border proposal, they’re showing a willingness to negotiate — a recognition that they’re taking McConnell seriously.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he wants a “true bipartisan deal” rather than a partisan wish list on immigration. Other top Democrats are expressing a sense of urgency given the GOP demands.

“If we are going to find a path forward on Ukraine, if we are going to get Republican support, then we’ve got to move fast and we’ve got to move smart,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that funds border operations.

It comes as Democrats are highlighting Ukraine’s dire outlook if new aid isn’t approved. And Biden has often said the United States’ credibility — not to mention the security of Europe — is at risk if Ukraine is abandoned to Russian control.

Addressing the border could also help Biden politically. He’s been under fire over this issue from red and blue states alike, and recent polls reveal broad dissatisfaction with the administration’s handling of the border crisis.

“Democrats ought to embrace this. It’s the one thing President Biden can do to help his ratings right now,” Senate GOP Conference Chair John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told us. “The border is an area that, if he can actually change policy, enforce the law and apply a working policy, that could actually help his abysmal approval ratings.”

It’s unclear, though, if Republicans would accept Democratic counter-proposals. Schumer made clear that both sides need to give concessions. And Murphy said the border package must be “targeted” and “lean.”

This could actually boost prospects for a deal given that it wouldn’t be a wholesale rewrite of immigration laws — a much bigger hurdle.

— Andrew Desiderio


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