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Mitch McConnell

Johnson jams McConnell

Speaker Mike Johnson’s decision to seek spending cuts in exchange for $14 billion in new aid for Israel made it easy for Democrats to reject him out-of-hand. But it’s about to make Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s job even harder.

The Kentucky Republican — who doubled down Monday on a huge national-security funding package that addresses Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and more — is seeing his rank-and-file grow even more bitterly divided over how to handle President Joe Biden’s $105 billion supplemental request.

Johnson is moving toward a Thursday vote in the House on the Israel funding alone. This would be paid for by cutting an equal amount from the Inflation Reduction Act’s IRS enforcement. The House GOP leadership team considered a host of bipartisan pay-fors, but opted to cut IRS money with hopes of dividing Democrats and solidifying GOP support.

Johnson and House GOP leaders will have a tough time passing this bill through their chamber in the face of what’s expected to be near-unified Democratic opposition and skittishness by some conservative hardliners.

But McConnell has made clear he doesn’t want to address Israel funding without Ukraine. He and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — as well as Biden — insist that both should be part of a broader national-security spending package.

So the fight to approve any of this funding will center on Republicans clashing with each other over complex issues that have long inflamed tensions within the Senate GOP Conference — foreign policy, budget deficits, Ukraine and the southern border.

In the Senate, conservatives are urging McConnell to use his leverage — the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation — to demand policy wins in exchange for helping Biden and Democrats pass the larger measure.

“If Democrats want [Ukraine aid] so badly, then shouldn’t Republicans get one of our priorities in a trade?” Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), who vehemently opposes new Ukraine aid, told us. “We shouldn’t just roll over and give Democrats everything they want, especially when it divides our conference so starkly.”

Vance said McConnell should force Democrats to accept policy changes at the southern border, before giving them enough GOP votes to pass a massive aid package for Israel, Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific. Many other Republicans agree with Vance. The White House’s request asks for more border security funding, but Republicans see this as a ruse. And Democrats say policy changes are a non-starter.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has long called to offset new federal spending, praised the House’s approach to Israel aid and said anything else is “dead on arrival” in the Senate. Paul also called out McConnell by name, saying his fellow Kentucky Republican should simply accede to the House’s proposal.

“If Sen. McConnell thinks he’s going to pass a $100 billion conglomeration — what Biden wants — there’s no way it passes the House. Sen. McConnell’s not unaware of the way the House works,” Paul told us. “It’s a very precarious position the speaker is in. I think that’s all he can get through.”

There are some practical challenges tied to what Vance and Paul are pushing for. For one, a standalone Israel bill with offsets is a no-go for the Democratic-led Senate.

For McConnell, who has consistently been Ukraine’s top supporter in Congress, this could be a legacy-defining moment. He wouldn’t want to do anything that could jeopardize that. In his view, why would you pick this fight with Democrats when you agree with them on Ukraine funding? McConnell has few, if any, incentives to give in to the Republicans who want to de-link Israel and Ukraine — a minority of the Senate minority party.

There are many other Senate Republicans who agree with McConnell on Ukraine — at least half the conference. And these GOP lawmakers see the next few weeks as Congress’ last chance to pass a big aid package before the conflict could spiral into a war requiring U.S. troop deployments to defend NATO allies in Eastern Europe.

Here’s what Senate Minority Whip John Thune told us:

The reality is that the Senate simply doesn’t have enough time to process these tranches of foreign aid separately — not to mention the CR that’ll be needed to fund the federal government past the Nov. 17 shutdown deadline. Plus, Schumer still controls what gets considered on the Senate floor.

“Moving them separately is an invitation to hand Ukraine to Putin,” warned Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a senior appropriator. “I do not see how we have the time between now and the end of November to do a CR, Ukraine aid and Israel aid separately. So you have to package these two together.”

Republicans will discuss the matter at their weekly policy lunch later today, and McConnell is likely to address it when he faces the cameras this afternoon.

As of now, however, the House and Senate GOP leadership remain on completely different wavelengths about how to address the Biden supplemental and its centerpiece — Israel funding.

“We need to be working this with the House,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a member of McConnell’s leadership team who backs both Israel and Ukraine aid.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top GOP appropriator, said Israel and Ukraine are both “extremely important priorities” that should not be separated from one another. She also criticized Johnson’s decision to seek further IRS cuts given that these were already included as part of the debt-limit agreement earlier this year.

And Collins hinted at concerns that pursuing budget cuts in tandem with emergency spending could set a precedent.

“The question is, where does it end here?” Collins said.

— Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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