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Mitch McConnell

McConnell’s Ukraine test

Congress’ window to approve more aid for Ukraine is quickly closing. And no one on Capitol Hill may feel this moment more acutely than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The next few weeks will test not only McConnell’s fraying relationship with his right flank but also his willingness to partner with President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats to muscle a huge Ukraine aid package through the chamber.

We can’t emphasize this enough — support for Ukraine among Republicans is eroding quickly. Senate Republicans tell us they believe the Nov. 17 government funding deadline could be their last chance to pass a significant aid package for the war-torn country.

“We’ve got three weeks to get this done,” one GOP senator said. “If we don’t, we’re telling Russia they can go have Ukraine.”

What had once been a strong pro-Ukraine majority of the Senate GOP Conference is now much more fragile. And even then, Senate Republicans who back Ukraine are increasingly focused on military aid rather than economic or humanitarian funding, arguing European nations should step up on the latter.

McConnell has remained consistently pro-Ukraine throughout the conflict, even hosting the Ukrainian ambassador at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center this week.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said flatly that McConnell’s position is “out of touch” with the party’s base. Public polling shows that support for aiding Ukraine is waning, especially among Republicans. Ukraine opponents inside the Republican Party argue the United States has to fix its border issues first before getting involved in foreign wars, and this view is winning out.

But Ukraine, in particular, is a legacy-defining issue for the 81-year-old McConnell. He sees the fight in Ukraine tied to Taiwan, Israel and other U.S. national security imperatives.

McConnell is also doubling down on his view that Congress must address more than just Israel in a national-security spending package, as new Speaker Mike Johnson and House GOP leaders have proposed. The White House is opposed to the House Republican plan.

On Tuesday, McConnell acknowledged he’s on the same page as Biden and congressional Democrats “conceptually.” But McConnell also said that his push for more Ukraine funding is looking increasingly contingent on a bipartisan breakthrough on the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Democrats will have to accept a really serious U.S.-Mexico border protection bill in order to get our people on board for a comprehensive approach,” McConnell said.

The White House has proposed billions of dollars in new border security funding, but Republicans have dismissed that approach as simply a continuation of what they term the administration’s failed policies. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, for his part, has said immigration policy changes are a non-starter in any supplemental package.

That’s where a new GOP effort comes in. Republicans, including the most vocal Ukraine backers, tell us they want to make it clear in their public messaging that the Ukraine portion won’t get approved without a side-by-side border-security effort. In many ways, that’s the only way they’ll be able to justify a massive Ukraine aid boost to their constituents.

“Eventually, you’ve got to have the border fight,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told us. “I’m not going to support any of this stuff until I know what’s going to happen with our own border.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) is leading a group of Republicans — and some Democrats, though he won’t name names — who are trying to write a border-related bill that could conceivably clear the 60-vote Senate threshold. Lankford told us he’s not aiming to make this a conservative wish list.

“We’re not trying to over-ask. We’re trying to ask ‘What are the things that DHS is also asking for, what are the things that need to be done to actually stop the acceleration of people coming across the border?’” Lankford said, naming asylum laws as one area to address.

“Clearly, there’s a major problem and the administration knows it and feels it and so do we,” Lankford added. The Oklahoma Republican hopes to have his proposal put together as soon as possible.

New: Schumer teed up votes on three more high-level military promotions that Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) has been blocking.

It came after Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) forced Schumer’s hand with a cloture petition, which allows any senator who gets enough signatures to force a vote on a nomination.

Tuesday night, Schumer filed cloture on the two remaining Joint Chiefs vacancies — the chief of naval operations and the Air Force chief of staff. Also scheduled is a vote on the No. 2 Marine Corps commandant.

The latter took on new urgency this week after Gen. Eric Smith, the Marine Corps commandant, was hospitalized due to an apparent heart attack.

Sullivan told us that he’ll continue using this tactic to force votes, but he emphasized the chamber needs to find a more holistic solution. Next on his list are the NORAD/NORTHCOM chief, as well as commanders for the 5th Fleet and 7th Fleet.

We scooped Tuesday that Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) is prepping a separate effort to force votes on the NORAD/NORTHCOM commander and the deputy CENTCOM commander.

— Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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