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Voices: McConnell surrenders to Maga – and leaves allies behind

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell all but acknowledged on Tuesday that the security bill that included provisions for border security and restrictions to immigration in exchange for money for Ukraine will not pass the Senate.

As we at The Independent’sInside Washington newsletter like to say, what McConnell does not says matters as much as what he does. And after he gave a few condescending pats on the head to Republican Oklahoma Senator James Lankford for being the sacrificial lamb in these negotiations, he said “it’s been made pretty clear to us by the speaker that it will not become law.”

But this ignores the fact that even before most senators had a chance to look at the text of the bill, Republicans immediately began coming out in opposition to it. Indeed, Republican senators oppose it so robustly that Lankford, the very person who negotiated the bill, said he does know if he will vote to end debate on the bill this week.

In some ways, McConnell and Lankford did all the right things. They got the support of the Border Patrol Union. The Chamber of Commerce came out in support of the legislation, as did The Wall Street Journal editorial board. This coalescing of support would have mattered to the GOP of a decade ago. But it doesn’t now.

McConnell’s decision to blame Speaker Mike Johnson – who told reporters last night that he disliked that McConnell did not include the House in negotiations – also ignores the fact that Donald Trump basically killed the bill. In fact, when friend of the newsletter Manu Raju at CNN asked him about whether Trump’s opposition proved too much to overcome, McConnell did his classic dodge where he says he will not talk about the 2024 presidential election.

But Democrats see Republicans as capitulating to Donald Trump.

“I would just say to the GOP, get their balls out of Trump's desk and vote for the thing that you've been yelling about for the last month and it's right here,” Democratic senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania told me. “And you could go right in there and vote for it right now. Do your job.”

For his part, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, Lankford’s negotiating partner with Independent Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona, voiced his frustration on the floor of the Senate by committing the ultimate sin: comparing Senate Republicans to the children’s table that is the House. “

But whatever words McConnell uses damns him: if he knew conservatives would always kill the bill, he sent Lankford on a suicide mission. If he did not know that Republicans would say “no,” it shows a stunning miscalculation and that he no longer can control the Senate Republican conference.

“I'd defend my Senate Republican colleagues; I'd explain how Trump doesn't control the Senate Republican Caucus like he controls the House. I don't think that's true any longer,” he said in an exasperated floor speech. “I think this conference is just as big a mess as the conference in the House.”

For his part Lankford told me “it's disappointing, honestly. Because for folks that said, I needed two or three weeks to be able to read and review it. But then within minutes, they came out and said, I'm not opposed to it.” Talk about still having tire tracks on his face after McConnell threw him under the bus.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Republican from Alaska and one of a handful who voted to convict Trump in 2021, said “it's unfortunate that the politics have proceeded a lot of the policy, and I get policy arguments by my colleagues.”

Now, McConnell has floated the idea of separating border legislation from a larger package to support Israel and Ukraine as well as support allies in the Indo-Pacific. Again, it must be emphasised that the whole reason that McConnell sent Lankford for these negotiations was that Republicans told Democrats they would not support aid to Ukraine or Israel unless they included provisions to restrict immigration.

McConnell’s new words essentially nullify all the work that Lankford did. It also ignores the fact that in the House, Marjorie Taylor Greene has threatened to oust Johnson if he passes a Ukraine aid package, which would put Democrats in the uncomfortable spot of having to save Johnson or create another dragged out process.

It should be noted that McConnell, who is 81 at this point and had multiple health episodes last year, has sought to make supporting Ukraine his lasting legacy. But by losing his grip of his conference and his nerve against Donald Trump, he compromises this very issue.

Next week, the Munich Security Conference will commence. Last year, McConnell opened his speech in Munich by saying “reports about the death of Republican support for strong American leadership in the world have been greatly exaggerated,” paraphrasing Mark Twain.

But McConnell’s words may have been premature and show he did not foresee this folly.

If anything, it’s been Democrats who have been carrying the mantle of internationalism. If anything, Elizabeth Warren sounds much more like a 2000s Republican hawk on Russia than even some Republicans.

“I have made clear that they care more about Donald Trump's election prospects and November 2024, than they do about supporting our allies around the world, even those who are in a life or death struggle against an illegal Russian invasion,” she said.

Incidentally, during McConnell’s press conference, Cindy McCain, the widow of the late Senator John McCain, an ardent critic of Vladimir Putin and Russia and a staunch defender of Ukraine, was on the Hill. But after the press conference, she was chatting with Democratic Senator Mark Kelly, her husband’s Democratic successor in Arizona, and Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.