After Republican divisions intensified this week over an emerging deal on border security measures and aid to Ukraine, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday reportedly acknowledged that a Trumpian shift in the political landscape could derail any agreement.
“When we started this, the border united us and Ukraine divided us,” McConnell told his fellow Republicans at a meeting Wednesday afternoon, NBC News reports. “The politics on this have changed.”
They’ve changed in large part because of the coming elections and the desire among Republicans — and former president Donald Trump in particular — to keep immigration and border security as politically potent issues in the campaign against President Joe Biden. Trump has publicly urged House Speaker Mike Johnson to reject a Senate deal and only accept one that is “PERFECT.”
Johnson and House Republicans have pushed for the package of stricter provisions in the immigration bill they passed last year, H.R. 2, which Democrats insist is a non-starter. Now Trump’s political calculations are further dimming the outlook for a compromise. “His opposition has made it more difficult to secure the support of a majority of Senate Republicans for an eventual deal, the threshold that backers say they must meet in order to persuade the House to take it up,” The New York Times notes.
It was Republicans who had initially wanted to link tighter border restrictions to Ukraine aid, insisting that the former would be required to unlock the latter, even if it might mean that Kyiv’s war against Russian invasion falters in the meantime. Now it’s Republicans who want to break that linkage, leaving both issues clouded in even greater uncertainty. Leaders have started discussing a supplemental spending bill that would deliver aid to Ukraine, Israel and allies in the Indo-Pacific region but leave out border funding, The Washington Post reports. But any standalone Senate effort to deliver aid to Ukraine could struggle to pass the House, where many Republicans oppose further funding for the war effort.
McConnell still backs a border-Ukraine deal: McConnell has been pushing especially hard for a bipartisan agreement, which has yet to be finalized after weeks of talks. He reportedly told colleagues on Thursday that he still supports one. His backing has put him at odds with Johnson and stoked the wrath of Senate conservatives, who pointedly criticized both the deal and the Republican leader at a Wednesday news conference. “This bill represents Senate Republican leadership waging war on House Republican leadership,” said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who also complained that a bipartisan deal would allow Democrats to say they had taken steps to address the border issue. And Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida complained in a social media post: “A ‘deal’ will allow Biden to pretend he’s doing something about the border but it won’t solve the problem.”
McConnell reportedly acknowledged yesterday that Republicans were “in a quandary” and told his members that, with Trump apparently well on his way to securing the GOP presidential nomination, “We don’t want to do anything to undermine him.”
The senator told reporters Thursday that negotiators were still working, “trying to get an outcome,” and other senior Republicans said that their leader hadn’t given up on the deal. “He wasn’t waving the white flag on border security at all,” John Cornyn of Texas said, according to The Washington Post.
What’s next: The deal is not dead yet, and some Republicans are still supporting it. “I think the Republican conference is going to make a decision in the next 24 hours as to whether they actually want to get something done or whether they want to leave the border a mess for political reasons,” Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the lead Democratic negotiator, told reporters earlier on Thursday. Still, any deal that emerges may be likely to die in the GOP-controlled House.
The bottom line: This Congress has already been one of the least productive in recent history. Now it’s increasingly uncertain whether these lawmakers will be able to do anything on the border and Ukraine. If a deal does fall apart, Republicans may hang onto a campaign talking point, but they will also have given Democrats a powerful one.