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After facing off with Senate ‘Freedom Caucus’, McConnell urges Johnson on Ukraine

The Ukraine fight has been a painful one for Mitch McConnell, fueling conservative calls for his ouster and a torrent of potshots from Senate Republicans opposed to more foreign aid.

Still, for now, McConnell is on the front foot.

After nearly winning half his conference in support of a $95 billion foreign aid bill, the Senate minority leader is calling for Ukraine-skeptical Speaker Mike Johnson to allow a vote on sending billions in aid to Kiev. In an interview on Tuesday afternoon, he called on Johnson to bring the issue to the House floor — though McConnell said he would not be “so presumptuous as to tell him how to do it.”

The soft push is an acknowledgment of the reality both GOP leaders face. While Johnson confronts more immediate threats to his speakership, McConnell has his own battle scars. That includes his campaign last fall for a clean funding bill, his embrace of linking foreign aid to border security as his party leaned in that direction, then watching 22 Republican senators support a border-free national security spending package on Tuesday — blowing four months just to end up right back where the Senate started.

All of those moves prompted questions about McConnell’s sway within the Senate GOP, as conservatives openly criticized his leadership and former President Donald Trump himself whipped against the Kentuckian’s priorities. Those dynamics could weigh on him in nine months, when McConnell will have to choose whether to run for his top post again and potentially face another Republican challenger after soundly shutting down Sen. Rick Scott‘s (R-Fla.) attempt last time around.

On Tuesday though, McConnell took a modest victory lap over the Senate-passed foreign aid bill — and suggested in the interview that history would look more kindly on his position than Trump’s non-interventionist wing.

He said he’d been doing some research, finding that a majority of his party opposed the critical Lend-Lease program to arm allies during World War II: “There’s been a long-held view, particularly when there is a Democrat in the White House, of some level of isolationism in our party.”

Sure, McConnell and other Ukraine advocates would love to see overwhelming Republican support for arming Ukraine as the war enters its third year. But he’s realistic — and seemingly comfortable — about where he stands on the big issues of the day.

“I’ve been with the minority of my members on raising the debt ceiling, on funding the government. There are just some issues that come along that are so important: You have to do the best you can,” McConnell explained in the interview. “No question I have a group that’s not fans of my work — and also, they just don’t like the idea of helping Ukraine. So the two got merged together.”

The question now is whether Johnson ends up aligning with McConnell or his critics. Hours after the Senate passed a foreign aid bill that included $60 billion for Ukraine, McConnell said Johnson can clear up questions about where the House stands by allowing a vote on sending billions to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan — even if it means the House passes something different than the Senate.

Now the Republican leader for a record-breaking 18th year, McConnell has cast the foreign aid debate in Congress as existential to U.S. leadership. Over and over again on the Senate floor, he’s argued that with China, Russia and Iran watching every move, it’s time for the United States to step up — not step back.

“I have my complaints with how the Biden administration handled it, but at least they’re in favor of supporting Ukraine’s fight for independence. And goodness, what is wrong with a situation in which we’re not losing any of our personnel?” McConnell said on Tuesday. “The Europeans are stepping up. They just sent $55 billion to Ukraine.”

Yet given the challenging internal politics for the GOP as Trump and his allies cast doubt on sending more aid to Ukraine, McConnell was careful in the interview to defer the specifics of finishing the job to Johnson — who faces threats to his gavel on a near-daily basis. Still, McConnell said he was hopeful that “the majority of the House Democrats and Republicans will do what we did in the Senate.”

“We’ve heard all kinds of rumors about whether the House supports Ukraine or doesn’t. It seems to me that the easy way to solve that would be to vote. And I hope the speaker will find a way to allow the House to work its will on the issue of Ukraine aid and the other parts of the bill as well,” McConnell said.

McConnell executed a relentless drive to get the foreign aid package into law before the war turns further against Ukraine. Congress hasn’t sent the allied country a new infusion of cash in 14 months. At times, portions of his own party tuned him out, wary of getting too bogged down in intraparty fighting over Ukraine.

Those dynamics, and McConnell’s single-minded mission, have awoken critics who mostly quieted after McConnell beat Scott in late 2022. In one typical remark over the weekend, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said that McConnell “completely blew” border negotiations.

Referring to the uprising against McConnell, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), said “we now have a Freedom Caucus in the Senate who is unafraid of calling for the removal of their leader.” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) called the attacks on McConnell “really disrespectful.”

“McConnell had a true understanding of the danger of Ukraine falling and was willing to expend a whole lot of political chips to try and get that done,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in an interview.

At the same time, McConnell stopped short of demanding Johnson take up the Senate’s product. It’s a reflection that McConnell, facing his own group of conservative rebels in the Senate, understands Johnson has internal political challenges as he navigates a reed-thin House majority.

In fact, McConnell seemed open to the idea that the Senate passage of a bill is just the first step in a negotiation with the House — as long as Ukraine gets a vote in the other chamber at some point.

“I don’t have any advice on how he does it. That’s why we have conferences,” McConnell said, referring to the typical process for a House-Senate negotiation. “What I do think is appropriate is for the House to be able to work its will on Ukraine, which obviously was the most controversial part of what we did.”

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Author: POLITICO