President Joe Biden’s decision to launch airstrikes against Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen on Thursday could serve to accelerate Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s urgent push for a national-security funding bill — though steep challenges remain.
McConnell leads a far more isolationist conference than he once did. Several rank-and-file Senate Republicans are skeptical of foreign entanglements in the wake of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and will push back.
And then there’s former President Donald Trump. He’s repeatedly flirted with pulling the United States out of NATO, something once unthinkable for any American leader.
Simply put, McConnell’s worldview isn’t as popular within his conference as it once was. As a result, it’s a lot harder for him to sell it.
And as House Republicans descend further into chaos and fears mount over Speaker Mike Johnson’s willingness to accept a bipartisan border deal, McConnell is looking to raise the stakes even higher.
In public and private, McConnell has been lobbying for Biden’s behemoth national security supplemental request for Ukraine, Israel and the Indo-Pacific region by reminding anyone who’ll listen that “the world is literally at war.”
The strikes Thursday on the Houthis, who have attacked shipping channels in the Red Sea, may lend new urgency to McConnell’s push.
Yet it’s unlikely to change the fundamental dilemma facing McConnell: How do you persuade a group of Republicans that opposes a comprehensive foreign-aid package and wants no part of a bipartisan border deal with Democrats?
Of course, there’s no deal yet on the border and immigration provisions that’ll be necessary to win GOP support for the legislation, which includes funding for longtime McConnell priorities like Ukraine.
Behind the scenes: We first reported that the Kentucky Republican told GOP senators during a closed-door meeting Thursday that this is Congress’ best opportunity to do something meaningful about the border, and they shouldn’t squander it. McConnell also said it was highly unlikely that they could strike a border deal with Democrats if Trump returns to the White House. His message was clear: We need to take the deal — now.
At separate party lunches this week, McConnell also highlighted the myriad national-security crises that would be addressed in the package — Russia’s war in Ukraine, terrorist attacks on Israel, China’s aggressive posture toward Taiwan, and now, Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea. Ahead of Thursday’s airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen, McConnell had urged the Biden administration to ramp up its “grossly insufficient” deterrence efforts against Iran in the region.
McConnell said on the floor this week that he “honestly can’t think of a more shortsighted strategic gamble” than pulling back from these conflicts and failing to pass a supplemental funding package.
What happens next will tell us a lot about the direction of the Republican Party — and which faction has the most influence.
— Andrew Desiderio