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Mitch McConnell and John Thune

Behind the scenes between White House and McConnell over Ukraine, border

Congress has left town for the year without passing a new Ukraine aid package. And the finger-pointing over that failure is already in full swing.

Background: The White House first requested $4 billion in new money for the U.S.-Mexico border back in August. That White House request also included $24 billion for Ukraine. The proposal didn’t go anywhere, and Congress passed a last-minute CR to avoid an Oct. 1 government shutdown.

On Oct. 20, the White House sent a second supplemental request to the Hill. This package included $61 billion for Ukraine, as well as more than $13 billion for border security. The request included billions of dollars more for Israel and bolstering the U.S. military position in the Indo-Pacific.

Republicans, for their part, say they’ve made it crystal clear to the Biden administration for months that Ukraine aid wouldn’t go anywhere without significant policy changes to stem the unprecedented wave of migrants attempting to cross the southern border. White House officials engaged in the negotiations too late to reach a deal this year, Republicans contend.

Democratic leaders, meanwhile, say Republicans held Ukraine aid hostage for border policy demands that couldn’t pass either chamber or be signed into law by President Joe Biden. Republicans were effectively using the bipartisan priority of aid to Kyiv as leverage to achieve a partisan goal. And at the same time, House GOP leaders were consistently undermining Senate Republicans’ stated desire to get to a deal.

Behind the scenes: A GOP source close to the situation laid out a timeline of all the times that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell raised the issue of trading border policy changes for Ukraine aid with top White House officials.

It starts with a series of calls and meetings between senior Biden administration officials — including Biden — and McConnell. The Kentucky Republican is arguably Ukraine’s biggest booster on the Hill. McConnell has even complained publicly that he was doing what Biden should’ve been in arguing on Ukraine’s behalf.

Yet despite his pro-Ukraine views, McConnell told the White House several times that border policy changes were necessary to secure Senate passage of any Ukraine-Israel-Taiwan funding, according to a person familiar with the minority leader’s contacts since Sept. 30.

On Oct. 19, McConnell spoke by phone with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Eleven days later, McConnell met with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and told him that both asylum and parole reform were necessary.

McConnell spoke by phone with White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients on Nov. 3 and relayed the same message about border policy changes. On Nov. 6 and Nov. 21, McConnell spoke by phone with Biden and reiterated this message.

On Dec. 7, McConnell told Zients that the negotiators had until Dec. 12 to reach an agreement so that legislation could be drafted in time for a Senate floor vote before the holidays. McConnell also spoke to Biden again.

On Dec. 12, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with senators, McConnell said it would be “practically impossible” for a deal to be voted on this year. It was that day that White House aides and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas began engaging in negotiations on the Hill with a bipartisan group of senators.

The pushback: McConnell’s influence on the situation may have been limited due to his party’s rising skepticism over aiding Ukraine — especially among former President Donald Trump and his allies in Congress.

In addition, the growing migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border further animated McConnell’s right flank. This faction was never going to back Ukraine funding anyway.

Republicans argue, however, that the timeline shows that the White House dragged its feet until it was too late to secure a border compromise in time for the Senate to vote before the holiday recess.

This, of course, is to say nothing of the House GOP negotiating position, which boiled down to “H.R. 2 or bust.” That hardline border security bill remains a non-starter for Democrats, and it made things more difficult for Senate Republicans who wanted to get a deal. Speaker Mike Johnson reiterated this position to the other congressional leaders in early December.

Democratic negotiators said throughout November that the GOP proposals and subsequent counter-offers weren’t serious enough to reach a bipartisan agreement.

A White House official told us that with negotiations on issues as complicated as immigration, they believe it’s better to begin with small groups of senators to see if there’s a bipartisan path to a deal.

“Once the negotiations were ready for the White House, we jumped in and got actively engaged with Mayorkas and senior White House officials going up to the Hill every day,” the official added.

All of this backbiting will fade away if Republicans and Democratic negotiators secure a border and immigration policy deal over the Christmas break. They’re expected to meet nearly every day. If those talks collapse or a bill doesn’t pass, expect the griping to get louder — and much more public.

— Andrew Desiderio and Jake Sherman

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