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Senate GOP overrules McConnell on CR, Ukraine

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walked into the GOP conference lunch today prepared to make the case that the Senate needs to proceed with its bipartisan stopgap funding bill, which included $6 billion for Ukraine.

After making an impassioned plea for helping Ukraine and advancing the Senate’s short-term funding bill, the GOP leader was quickly overruled by his colleagues including Minority Whip John Thune and Republican Conference Chair John Barrasso, according to multiple GOP senators.

Minutes later, McConnell announced to reporters that Republicans would deny Democrats the requisite votes to advance the Senate’s bipartisan CR. The substantive result of this was a show of support for Speaker Kevin McCarthy and House Republican leaders.

“This was not Mitch’s call,” one GOP senator told us.

“He was vastly outnumbered,” another said of McConnell.

A third GOP senator who, like others, was granted anonymity to candidly describe the meeting, added: “I think it shows Mitch is out of step with the conference.”

Thune’s willingness to object was particularly striking, this senator said, adding that the South Dakota Republican “wasn’t afraid to step up and say this is what he thought should happen.”

It was a stunning turnaround that raises doubts about McConnell’s influence over his conference — even though a strong majority of Senate Republicans still backs Ukraine and wants McConnell to stay on as their leader.

Interestingly, McCarthy told reporters on Saturday that he has been mostly dealing with Thune lately, not McConnell. But a source familiar with the matter said that Thune had made McConnell aware of the communications, and was not freelancing.

McConnell, who has taken to the Senate floor on a near-daily basis to push for more Ukraine funding, was making the case for cash for Kyiv until the very end in part because senior Biden administration officials warned him that it was absolutely essential, according to people familiar with the conversations.

Last weekend, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan privately told McConnell that it would be impossible to sustain Ukraine’s fight against Russia for the next month and a half without additional funding. Not including more aid in the CR would impose significant financial and symbolic harm on Ukraine’s government, they warned.

But the House GOP leadership’s CR didn’t include any new assistance for Ukraine. It also didn’t include an extension of the Pentagon’s transfer authority for weapons and equipment, which could have at least provided a cushion.

McConnell was making the case for $6 billion in Ukraine funding — a relatively small amount compared to the $110 billion already spent by the United States on the war — to be left in the CR until the very last minute. By that point, it had become clear that including that funding would have led to a government shutdown, which would have severely disrupted the Pentagon’s efforts.

Faced with the possibility of a shutdown at midnight tonight, all but one House Democrat then voted for the House GOP-drafted package, and the Senate followed suit, even though many senators on both sides raised concerns about the future of Ukraine funding.

A White House official told us that they expect McCarthy to “bring a separate [Ukraine funding] bill to the floor shortly.”

McCarthy and McConnell will both have to balance the competing factions within their conferences if that happens. Half of the House GOP conference voted to strip Ukraine aid from an FY 2024 Defense funding bill earlier this week. And there’s a growing faction — a sizable minority — within the Senate GOP conference that doesn’t want to approve any more money for Ukraine.

More on that below.

— Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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