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Inside the warring Senate GOP

The Senate Republican Conference is starting to sound like their House GOP counterparts — a complete mess.

Private Senate GOP meetings have devolved into testy exchanges over immigration, Donald Trump and Ukraine, including Tuesday’s closed policy lunch.

Some GOP senators openly called out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell during that session, questioning whether the Kentucky Republican is using a tentative immigration and border security package as an end run with Democrats to help push through more money for Ukraine. Republicans will hold another private meeting focusing just on Ukraine today.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who led calls for the discussion about Ukraine, argued that Republicans “haven’t really talked about this at all.”

Johnson — a McConnell critic — bizarrely claimed earlier this week that McConnell “couldn’t negotiate his way out of a paper bag,” which we pointed out has never, ever been said about the Kentucky Republican before. Other stuff, yes. But not that.

Inside the room: At Tuesday’s lunch, McConnell pushed back on the Ukraine criticism, pointing out that his Republican colleagues have talked for months about the war with Russia and what the U.S. should do to help. McConnell has been Ukraine’s most vocal defender on Capitol Hill during the fall and into early 2024, even as opposition has grown among Hill Republicans on new aid for the embattled U.S. ally.

Yet McConnell’s hold on the Senate GOP Conference isn’t what it was. McConnell faced an unsuccessful challenge to his leadership following the 2022 elections. And McConnell’s repeated health problems last year led some Republicans to suggest he should be replaced by one of the “Three Johns” — Senate Minority Whip John Thune, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) or Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). McConnell’s health has improved markedly in recent months.

But Trump’s growing strength in the GOP presidential race is another concern for McConnell, especially after Tuesday night’s win in New Hampshire. Trump and the 81-year-old McConnell — the longest-serving party leader in Senate history — have a bleak relationship. McConnell committed the ultimate sin of acknowledging Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. Trump countered by urging Republicans to replace McConnell, but the Senate Republican Conference ignored that. It will become tougher to ignore Trump’s missives as the year unfolds, however.

Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — who has called himself “deeply skeptical” of the tentative border security package — also clashed loudly during Tuesday’s lunch, senators told us.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) briefed his fellow Republicans on the status of the bipartisan talks over immigration and border security he’s holding with Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.). Lankford offered few details before telling them that a bill wouldn’t be ready this week.

A “testy” Lankford complained that he hadn’t asked for the assignment but had been drafted into it, according to three senators who were at the lunch.

“Everybody wants to be able to go through it and to say ‘We’ve got all these questions, when can we see it?’” Lankford said following the closed-door session. Lankford remains hopeful that the text of the proposal can be released this week despite ongoing problems with parole provisions and funding levels.

At one point during the lunch, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) suggested that senators may need several weeks to go through any proposal before the Senate begins floor action. Lee plans to offer a resolution today in the GOP Ukraine meeting opposing cloture “on any supplemental spending bill containing border provisions without adequate time to offer and vote on floor amendments.” Remember that McConnell has urged quick passage of the measure.

Yet the growing chorus of complaints from hardline conservatives about the still-unreleased Murphy-Lankford-Sinema proposal may actually turn the politics of this issue on its head.

Republicans have made the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border into the biggest political issue in the country, according to recent polls.

But with Biden and Hill Democrats now agreeing to major concessions sought by GOP leaders, opposition to a deal from hardline conservatives could help stymie efforts to pass a proposal to address the crisis. This could play into Biden’s hands — Democrats sought a solution to the issue, yet Republicans wouldn’t agree to any compromise. This is what Senate Republican leaders have been warning privately for weeks, especially to those GOP lawmakers up for reelection in 2024.

Department of Falling in Line. Trump won the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night. And, quite predictably, a handful of Senate Republican holdouts are now rallying around him.

Last night alone, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Cornyn both endorsed Trump.

Cornyn’s statement started out like this: “To beat Biden, Republicans need to unite around a single candidate, and it’s clear that President Trump is Republican voters’ choice.”

This will make for an interesting dynamic in the Senate Republican Conference.

McConnell, of course, hasn’t endorsed Trump and seems barely interested in saying his name. Thune likewise is holding out still. Trump threatened to try to primary Thune last election cycle. However, Thune won his primary by 52 percentage points and reelection by 43 percentage points. Thune had endorsed Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) in the presidential race. Scott, though, is now backing Trump.

Barrasso, who publicly backed Trump two weeks ago, called him “our presumptive nominee for President of the United States” following Tuesday’s win in the Granite State.

— John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman

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