Senate Republicans struggled to hold together support for a bipartisan border-for-Ukraine deal on Thursday as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) privately acknowledged former president Donald Trump’s opposition to the deal has complicated its future.
Republicans demanded stringent border policy changes to pass $60 billion in Ukraine aid requested by the White House last year, and a small group of Senate negotiators are closing in on a deal that Trump has publicly slammed and that some Republicans have argued could hurt Trump’s reelection chances by removing a potent campaign issue. A significant number of Republican senators have begun to speak out against the border security deal before its details have been released and even as they continue to raise alarm bells about the migrant crisis at the border.
In a closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon, McConnell, who is pushing for Ukraine funding and reluctantly agreed to tie the foreign aid to border security, acknowledged that the politics have changed for passing a border deal given Trump’s opposition as he moves toward clinching the Republican presidential nomination, according to two people familiar with his comments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
The remarks, first reported by Punchbowl News, caused confusion among some in his conference and caused McConnell to clarify on Thursday in another closed-door meeting, saying he had been misinterpreted. “I am … personally fully engaged in both the border and getting Ukraine and Israel [funding] together on this,” McConnell said, according to Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who attended the gathering.
The border deal, which negotiators say may be released as soon as next week, is focused on making it harder for migrants to seek asylum, changes to the use of parole for migrants, and a mechanism to effectively close down the border on days when crossings were particularly high. The overall aid package requested by President Biden includes $106 billion in military assistance for Israel, Ukraine and Indo-Pacific nations as well as humanitarian aid and U.S. border funds.
“This is a unique moment,” said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), a lead negotiator. “And I think we should take it.”
Several McConnell allies said Thursday that the leader was not casting doubt on the deal, but was rather acknowledging the daunting political reality of the task as Trump, who wants to run on a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, looks poised to lock up the nomination.
“What is currently being worked on in the Senate will be meaningless in terms of Border Security and Closure,” Trump said in a statement Thursday evening, adding that the “ONLY HOPE” for a secure border is voting for him.
“What [McConnell] was talking about was what he saw as sort of the political challenges of moving forward,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said. “He wasn’t waving the white flag on border security at all.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the lead GOP negotiator, said Thursday that he thinks McConnell was not “undermining” his work at all. But Lankford also acknowledged the problem of some Republicans seeing a deal as bad for Trump’s political future, given polling suggests immigration is one of Biden’s top political liabilities.
“There are some people that oppose the bill, based on the presidential politics issue, rather than the crisis that’s actually occurring at the border,” Lankford said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally and a negotiator of the deal, has argued in recent days that a border deal would not affect the presidential election — a sign that Senate Republicans are attempting to publicly convince the president not to kill the deal. Republicans have also argued that this border deal would empower Trump if he were elected to reduce migration.
Negotiators said the next few days would be critical for the future of the package.
“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,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the lead Democratic negotiator. “If Republicans blow this up, Vladimir Putin will win the war and Europe will be at risk.”
GOP leaders have said they want the eventual bill to attract at least half of the Republican conference, in order for it to have a greater chance of passing the GOP-controlled House, whose leaders have expressed strong skepticism of any border deal or Ukraine aid. (House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said on Fox News recently that Trump was “extremely adamant” that the deal should be rejected.) But Republican defections have been mounting, making that number harder to reach.
“We’ve spent four months negotiating a border deal, plane’s not yet landed,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.). “Don’t know if the plane ever will land, but time’s not on our side and I’ve just seen support in the Republican Senate for a border deal deteriorate.”
Near the end of the Republican meeting Wednesday evening, McConnell stood to address the conference and laid out the choices facing it, the people familiar with his remarks said. McConnell said the politics have shifted now that Trump — whom McConnell called “the nominee” after his win in the New Hampshire primary — wants to campaign on the issue of a broken border, and that McConnell doesn’t want to undercut his campaign. McConnell also read out loud a statement from then-President Trump in which he said the law on the border needs to change, they said.
McConnell noted that this is the first border negotiation that did not include Democratic demands of a path to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants, and he warned that a border-only deal has an expiration date, according to a senior GOP aide. Should Trump win the White House, Democrats would demand immigration reform in exchange for border security.
McConnell’s comments came during a meeting on the subject of funding Ukraine as it continues to fend off a Russian invasion — a top priority for McConnell even as it has become unpopular among Republican voters. Several GOP senators have argued against continuing to send U.S. aid to the embattled country, while McConnell has made the case in near-daily floor speeches of the necessity of stopping Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Everybody’s got the same opinion of Vladimir Putin, he’s a thug,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) about the tone of Wednesday’s meeting. “He’s invaded a country. It’s a question for many of whether that’s going to have to be a settled issue, negotiated, or if you keep spending money, whether it’s going to end up in any type of result.”
The White House has said it cannot send more security assistance to Ukraine without funding from Congress, and the administration has painted a bleak picture of Ukraine’s chances of continuing to fend off the Russian invasion without additional arms.
“I think the border is a very important issue for Donald Trump. And the fact that he would communicate to Republican senators and congresspeople that he doesn’t want us to solve the border problem because he wants to blame Biden for it is really appalling,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters Thursday.
Jacob Bogage, Theodoric Meyer and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.