Senate GOP pleads with Trump not to kill Ukraine-border security deal

Senate Republicans who favor sending aid to Ukraine and cutting a deal with Democrats to secure the U.S.-Mexico border are hoping that former President Trump’s Senate allies can intervene with the presidential front-runner to save a carefully negotiated package of military aid and border security reforms from going down in flames.

Senate Republican Policy Committee Chair Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) this week asked colleagues who have endorsed Trump to intercede with the Republican presidential front-runner and ask that he hold off on criticizing the emerging deal until lawmakers have a chance to review its details.

Ernst and other Republicans are worried that Trump will throttle legislation to help Ukraine and improve border security before the text of the deal is even released.

One Republican senator who attended a Senate GOP discussion on the bill said Ernst asked “those of you who have endorsed Trump, please ask Trump: Don’t cut off its head before we’ve even seen it.”

The lawmaker said Trump’s opposition to a border security deal is “damaging.”

A second GOP senator confirmed Ernst’s plea to colleagues to ask Trump to hold his fire.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Senate Republican colleagues Wednesday afternoon that the politics of passing border security reforms attached to Ukraine funding is turning out to be a lot tougher than he and other GOP lawmakers initially expected.

McConnell acknowledged that Trump’s expected opposition to any border security deal could prove too big an obstacle to overcome, according to GOP senators in the meeting.

“I think he was saying out loud what a lot of people are thinking on this. When [the negotiations] started in October, we were not in a presidential election year. This was a totally different moment on it. Now we are in the heat of a primary in a presidential election year. It’s a huge campaign issue and it kind of gets sucked into all of this conversation” about a Ukraine funding and border security package, said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the lead Republican negotiator on the border reforms.

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McConnell has also floated the idea of splitting off the border provisions from the larger package as away to preserve Ukraine aid, a high priority for the GOP leader. But it is unclear how this would pass muster in the House.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of Senate GOP leadership and the whip team, said Trump should hold off on bashing the emerging deal. She defended the reforms to asylum and parole policy as changes that would reduce migrant flows.

“A lot of what we want is what Trump did, so he should hold his fire a little bit,” she said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a leading Senate Republican voice on immigration policy and a member of the leadership team, said the bill would cut down on the number of migrants entering the country and promised that Trump could still run against President Biden on the issue of border security.

“Some people have said, ‘Well, the issue is gonna go away and that will be denying President Trump the issue.’ I think that’s fantasy. You’re not going to turn off what’s happening at the border like a water faucet. So, this is going to continue to be a problem, and it’s obviously a very potent political issue,” Cornyn said Thursday.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called Trump’s opposition to a border security deal “appalling.”

“I think the border is a very important issue for Donald Trump,” Romney said. “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)
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) speaks to a reporter as he arrives to the Capitol for a series of votes, including a continuing resolution to fund the federal government, on Thursday, January 18, 2024. (Greg Nash)

Senate Republicans across the spectrum say that Trump’s growing political momentum and the heating up of election year politics is going to make it exceedingly difficult to get funding for Ukraine and a border security deal through the Senate and House and to President Biden’s desk.

Trump called on Republican lawmakers last week to reject any deal that falls short of “everything” they want to close the border.

“I do not think we should do a Border Deal, at all, unless we get EVERYTHING needed to shut down the INVASION of Millions & Millions of people,” Trump wrote on Truth Social last week.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who expects to vote against the Ukraine and border security package based on what he’s learned of it so far, said Trump’s opposition would make it very difficult for Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) to bring it to the floor.

“Who it makes it tougher on is Mike Johnson,” he said. “The House Republicans have said we’ve got H.R. 2, that’s what he want,” referring to the Secure the Border Act, which the House passed in May with only GOP votes.

Hawley said Trump’s influence on the debate in Congress now makes it difficult for House Republicans to accept anything that falls short of H.R. 2 in its entirety.

“I think it makes it hard now to back off of that and say, ‘Oh well, we’ll accept something quite a bit less,’” he said.

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said any package linking Ukraine funding and border security has little chance of passing the Republican-controlled House because of Trump’s opposition.

“It’s probably done in the sense I don’t think the House is going to be for the end product, and I think it’s clear where the nominee of our party’s going to be,” he said.

Braun said Trump has “made it public where he’s at.”

The Indiana senator said McConnell at a meeting with Republican senators recognized that the political “dynamic is changed” because Trump is the party’s “apparent nominee.”

“I think that spoke volumes,” he said. “The essence of the bill itself, where it’s at, I don’t think it would have any chance of passing in the House unless it has a bunch of Democrats voting for it.”

Nevertheless, Senate Republicans who support a package of Ukraine funding and border security reforms aren’t giving up hope that they can pass a deal through the Senate and convince Trump and Speaker Johnson not to kill it in the House.

Lankford said he still planned to meet with Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), the lead Democratic negotiator, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) on Thursday afternoon to get the bill closer to being finished.

“We’re still working. I was not instructed by the leader to be able to stop working on this,” Lankford said of McConnell’s comments to GOP senators Wednesday. “I don’t have any doubt President Trump [if re-elected] would be glad to have these same authorities as president.”

“But I also understand this is a huge campaign issue,” he acknowledged.

Some Senate Republicans said privately that they hope Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Trump’s closest Senate ally, is able to convince the former president to refrain from trashing the embattled Ukraine-border package.

“He is on the periphery of the negotiations, so he’s in the best position to have a conversation” with Trump, said one GOP senator who requested anonymity to float the idea of Graham making peace with Trump on the emerging Ukraine-border deal.

But Graham told The Hill he doesn’t know whether he can even support the legislation.

“Can I support it? If I can support it, I’ll be glad to tell [Trump] why I think, given where we’re at, why it’s worth doing,” he said.

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