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Mitch McConnell

What McConnell’s border play means

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did four extraordinary things Wednesday afternoon, all of which we scooped in our PM edition Wednesday night.

1) In a private Senate Republican meeting on Ukraine, McConnell said effectively that time and the political will to pass a bipartisan immigration and border security compromise are quickly running out — and may have actually run out already.

McConnell told GOP senators that before border security talks began, immigration policy united Republicans and Ukraine aid divided them. “Politics on this have changed,” McConnell said of solving the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. That’s because former President Donald Trump wants to run his 2024 campaign focusing on immigration.

“We don’t want to do anything to undermine him,” McConnell said of Trump, a one-time collaborator turned nemesis.

This is a big about-face for McConnell, who earlier this week said Congress needs to pass the border security bill and unlock billions of dollars in new Ukraine aid.

On the floor Wednesday, McConnell asserted that supporting Ukraine was a matter of “cold hard American interest.” But the Kentucky Republican made his own cold political calculation later in the day that the scheme he had been relentlessly pushing for weeks was in jeopardy and a new approach was needed.

2) In effectively backing away from the border-security-for-Ukraine construct that Hill Republicans clung to for the last few months, McConnell is acknowledging Trump’s continued stranglehold on the GOP. He referred to Trump as “the nominee” during the closed-door session.

McConnell also read aloud a quote from Trump, laying the former president’s problems with the tentative border security package.

McConnell and Trump have a terrible relationship, going back to the post-2020 election period when the Kentucky Republican acknowledged Joe Biden’s victory. Trump has attacked McConnell’s wife — former Trump Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao — in stunningly racist terms.

McConnell, though, wants to win the Senate back this November, and that can’t happen without Trump if he’s the GOP nominee. McConnell is one of the best vote counters in Senate history, and he clearly saw which way the debate was heading.

3) McConnell is leaving the prospect of another aid package for Kyiv in an uncertain place. Democratic and GOP lawmakers and leadership aides believe that there’s still majority support for more Ukraine money among lawmakers. But how does Congress pass it?

The border-for-Ukraine construct always made sense in theory. But when lawmakers got down to details, the fault lines among Hill Republicans became glaringly obvious. These inter-Republican clashes once again laid bare how the GOP prefers to use the border crisis as a political talking point instead of solving the underlying problem. The White House and Hill Democrats will pound home that message every day for the rest of the election cycle.

4) McConnell has now shifted some of the blame for this episode to Trump. Trump was bashing the tentative deal even before it was formally released. He’s called Speaker Mike Johnson and GOP senators repeatedly to pressure them to oppose it. Right-wing media slammed it on Trump’s behalf.

Yet if Trump doesn’t want this deal, what does he want beyond simply shutting the border, building a wall and launching a quixotic campaign to deport millions of people? There’s no way that’s all going to happen. And what should happen on the border while Trump is running his White House campaign?

Democrats will get to say they made huge concessions on parole and asylum during these talks, and Trump tanked it. That’s a much better space politically than they were in just before these Senate talks began.

What’s next: The question now is where does the Senate go from here?

The multi-prong efforts by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) to craft legislation to solve the border crisis are probably over. It’s hard to see a deal coming together now, although nothing is final yet.

Sinema — who has been adept at stitching together bipartisan coalitions the last few years — was quietly sounding out some Republicans on where they stood on the border package, according to senators and aides. That may not matter at this point.

McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will have to discuss the new legislative outlook, and that hasn’t happened yet as far as we can tell. Democrats didn’t have any comment on Wednesday night regarding McConnell’s comments.

Schumer and the White House have some big decisions ahead of them too. Will Schumer try to move an aid package for Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel as one big package? Will he move them separately? Can Ukraine money be attached to any of the FY2024 spending bills? Can any of these get 60 votes in the Senate, either together or on their own?

Johnson and his bare-bones-219-House Republican majority aren’t going to solve the border crisis, that seems clear. Johnson continues to call on Biden to take executive action to stem illegal border crossing while also pushing H.R. 2, the House GOP’s hardline border security bill. No Democrats back that bill.

Perhaps a more apt question is what will Johnson do if the Senate does pass a foreign aid bill? Johnson could face a threat to his hold on the speaker’s chair if he tries to move Ukraine aid on its own. He already flubbed in linking Israel aid to IRS spending cuts. That measure has been hung up in the Senate for months.

— Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan

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