Mitch McConnell is in trouble.
He’s made it clear that he views aiding Ukraine in its efforts to repeal Russia’s invasion as central to his legacy. And yet, the longest-serving Senate leader in history may be unable to overcome former President Donald Trump’s efforts to kill the sweeping deal the Senate’s top Republican nudged along for months.
“America’s sovereignty is being tested here at home, and our credibility is being tested by emboldened adversaries around the world,” McConnell said in a statement announcing his support of the deal. “The challenges we face will not resolve themselves, nor will our adversaries wait for America to muster the resolve to meet them.”
On Sunday night, a trio of Republican and Democratic senators announced that after months of negotiations, they had reached a deal on a massive $118 billion deal to change US immigration policy, fund Ukraine’s and Israel’s respective defenses, and harden the Asia-Pacific against China’s rise. By Monday afternoon, it appeared the bill was almost certainly dead.
Speaker Mike Johnson declared the legislation “dead on arrival” if it ever reached the House. He also joined with other top House Republicans Monday afternoon to implore Senate Republicans to kill it. Trump deemed it a “Death wish for the Republican Party.” McConnell is already facing one key defection: Sen. Steve Daines, who leads the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, is lined up against the bipartisan deal.
In the now unlikely scenario the bill makes it out of the Senate, it’s abundantly clear House Republicans will promptly ignore it. McConnell himself foreshadowed this in behind-closed-door comments that leaked out before the final bill was announced.
“We don’t want to do anything to undermine him,” he said of Trump’s views on immigration, according to Punchbowl News.
McConnell quickly proclaimed he wasn’t trying to kill the talks, but his observation could well prove to be prescient — even as some Republicans caution about nuking a deal to protect Trump.
Trump is winning the long-term struggle for control of the Senate GOP.
The current dividing lines illustrate how Trump has continued to gain in his war of attrition against McConnell’s grasp.
The Senate GOP might be the last large section of the party that the former president doesn’t have a firm grip on. And yet, the current makeup is undoubtedly more aligned with Trump than the one he encountered as a political neophyte when he visited Capitol Hill the day just a few days after his historic 2016 upset.
Gone are Sens. Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, Ben Sasse, Rob Portman, and Roy Blunt, all figures who to varying degrees (emphasis on Flake and Sasse) clashed with Trump during his time in office. Some of those lawmakers were also vital to policy deals Republicans brokered with President Joe Biden on infrastructure, guns, and updating the law governing how Congress counts presidential electors. Trump unsuccessfully tried to kill the infrastructure deal. The loudest dissenting voice of all, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, will soon join them on the sidelines, resigned to telling his biographer what his colleagues really think about the former president.
Sens. JD Vance of Ohio and Josh Hawley of Missouri headline a small but burgeoning group of conservatives that want to drag the Senate closer to Trump on numerous policy fronts, including immigration and foreign policy. There’s even a chance that Kari Lake could soon join them if the former president doesn’t tap one of the highest-profile deniers of the 2020 election to be his running mate first.
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who once took his opposition to Trump to the GOP convention floor, issued an all-caps call for “NEW LEADERSHIP — NOW.” Lee further denounced McConnell’s “bromance” with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that shaped the final deal.
“This bill unites Senate Democrats and sharply divides Senate Republicans,” Lee said in another post.
Blunt’s replacement in Washington, Sen. Eric Schmitt of Missouri, underlined his views by tweeting a gif of a defiant Jon Snow from HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” While Hawley said that the legislation “a huge middle finger to working people.”
Conservatives cite similar themes for their opposition to the bill, namely that Biden’s actions caused the current crisis at the border. They are also weary of granting a Homeland Security Secretary, currently Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, more authority when House Republicans are already pursuing a controversial impeachment of him.
It is worth noting that some Republicans initially called for the marriage of immigration and Ukraine aid, a trade-off the Biden administration has now answered through its support of the deal. The border security provisions are unprecedented in the sense that a bipartisan immigration deal has never in recent years included stricter immigration laws without greater protections for so-called Dreamers or a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants already in the US.
The reality is that McConnell’s leadership is imperiled like never before. In 2022, he easily bested Sen. Rick Scott of Florida for the right to lead the Senate GOP, but it was still the first time one of his colleagues directly challenged his leadership. Since then, a group of Senate Republicans has continued to be vocal about the difficulties of having a GOP leader who has an at best icy relationship with Trump.
McConnell is pressed for time.
Time might not be on McConnell’s side either. The 81-year-old had multiple high-profile health incidents last year. The Capitol physician concluded that McConnell’s freezes were not cause for serious concern, but the private plotting of a future without him spilled over into public view. There’s a chance that the supplemental could become the final piece of his and President Joe Biden’s legacy.
In the meantime, McConnell will continue to scrounge for votes. As of this writing, there’s a chance a majority of Senate Republicans will stand against their leader.