WASHINGTON — Within 48 hours of the release of a long-awaited immigration and foreign aid bill he had championed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Republican conference rejected his pitch to support it, knifed the deal and left it for dead.
Just four Republicans voted for it. In the end, even McConnell backtracked and voted against the package that he had helped develop.
It was a jarring moment on Capitol Hill that pointed to a changed landscape: The Kentucky Republican, a one-man power center for more than a decade, is seeing his influence with fellow senators wane as his party continues to transform into the right-wing populist mold of Donald Trump. The former president, who fiercely opposed the border deal and has long pushed fellow Republicans to turn away from McConnell, is cruising to a third consecutive GOP presidential nomination.
“It looks to me, and to most of our members, as if we have no real chance here to make a law,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday, effectively declaring the deal dead after talking to his conference.
The collapse of the package leaves U.S. aid to Ukraine at risk of ending completely. McConnell, who is accustomed to having GOP senators follow his strategic guidance, has been pleading with them for months not to let Russian strongman Vladimir Putin make incursions into Europe, lest it upend the global order the U.S. has led since World War II. Those pleas have fallen on deaf ears with conservative lawmakers and voters, who align with a Trump wing that has turned against giving Ukraine money and weapons to defend itself.
The Senate is still trying to pass a supplemental aid bill by itself that would include aid to Ukraine and Israel, but it’s far from clear that can pass Congress, despite McConnell’s support.
“We had 10 of us to vote against him at the start of this Congress. There may be a few more people questioning him,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said Wednesday. “I hope a lot of my colleagues are asking themselves: How did we get ourselves in a situation where we’re being blamed for Biden’s open border policy? How could that be possible? The answer is McConnell made that possible.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., called McConnell’s moves to reach a border and Ukraine deal a “big tactical error.”
“It was a huge mistake. And I think he’s always cared more about giving money to Ukraine than he has about any other issue,” Paul said of his fellow Kentuckian.
Paul, who holds isolationist foreign policy views, has frequently found himself among a fringe minority of Republicans while McConnell’s positions have commanded the support of most colleagues. Lately, that dynamic has evolved.
“On this issue, he is not aligned with the conservatives either at home in Kentucky or across the nation who don’t think we can send unlimited money,” Paul said.
McConnell rejected claims by his GOP critics that he shouldn’t have engaged in negotiations to pair Ukraine aid with a border and asylum bill, reminding them that it was their idea.
“I followed the instructions of my conference who were insisting that we tackle this in October. It’s actually our side that wanted to tackle the border issue. We started it,” McConnell said. “Things have changed over the last four months.” His office declined to comment further.
‘It surprises me’
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he was shocked that McConnell was not able to get more Republicans to coalesce around the bill.
“He didn’t just bless the deal. He wrote the deal,” Murphy, the lead Democrat in those negotiations, said. “I have a ton of respect for his commitment to Ukraine. I genuinely enjoyed working with his team. They were in the room every single day. But it’s really worrying that a deal that was written and endorsed by the minority leader gets four votes from his caucus.”
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who was elected in 2010 to replace Joe Biden, said that in those nearly 14 years he has never seen a McConnell-backed deal collapse so quickly with the GOP.
“It surprises me,” he said.
But Trump’s hammering of the deal, while he uses immigration as a campaign issue, and his demands that Republicans reject it won the day. On Tuesday, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., a member of McConnell’s leadership team and one of several prospects to replace him as leader, rejected the border bil, saying, “Americans will turn to the upcoming election to end the border crisis.”
McConnell’s diminishing sway goes beyond Ukraine and immigration. After Republicans won control of the House in 2022 and elevated Trump allies to run it, McConnell said he would stay out of negotiations to fund the government and lift the debt ceiling, instead telling House Republicans and President Joe Biden to figure it out. It was an unusual move for McConnell, who had regularly been at the center of those kinds of monumental deals, both as Senate majority and minority leader, under the presidencies of Barack Obama, Trump and — at least until then — Biden, a longtime friend of his.
Even in the Democratic trifecta in 2021 and 2022, McConnell used the filibuster to stymie Biden’s biggest ambitions, but he allowed some bipartisan deals he supported to advance, from infrastructure to modest gun legislation to updating election rules, with the backing of multiple Senate Republicans.
Senate GOP becomes Trumpier
Conservatives in the House have now become accustomed to throwing rhetorical grenades at McConnell, accusing him and others who work with Democrats of being part of a “uni-party.”
“Usually, when Mitch McConnell stitches together a bill with disparate issues that he wants, he achieves his objective,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., told reporters. “And for the first time we prevailed, so there’s a celebratory mood.”
When it was reported last month that McConnell was anticipating a vote on a Ukraine aid bill, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, responded: “I anticipate telling McConnell to pound sand.”
During Trump’s presidency, the Senate GOP was filled with staunch McConnell allies who enabled the Republican leader to approach legislative conflicts with the then-president from a position of strength. But many of them have since been replaced by Trump loyalists or they’ve changed to become more Trump-aligned themselves. McConnell’s once-functional relationship with Trump broke down after Jan. 6, 2021. Although he voted to acquit Trump in his second impeachment trial, McConnell gave a blistering floor speech holding Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the “failed insurrection.”
Asked about Trump’s role in sinking the immigration bill, McConnell said, “I’ve said repeatedly every month that I’m not going to get into comments about the race for the presidency among Republicans. I think, in the end, even though the product is approved by the Border Council that endorsed President Trump, most of my members feel that we’re not going to be able to make a law here.”
Even among right-wing Senate Republicans, attacks on McConnell were unusual for the vast majority of his tenure as leader. Today, they’ve become common. On Tuesday, six Republicans held a news conference and took turns bashing McConnell and his leadership team: Sens. Rick Scott, of Florida; Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin; Mike Lee, of Utah; Ted Cruz, of Texas; JD Vance, of Ohio; Eric Schmitt, of Missouri; and Roger Marshall, of Kansas.
Many of them openly questioned whether McConnell, the longest-serving Senate leader, should stay in his job.
Cruz said it’s time for McConnell to step down. “I think it is,” he said. “Look, everyone here also supported a leadership challenge to Mitch McConnell in November. I think a Republican leader should actually lead this conference and should advance the priorities of Republicans.”
McConnell grinned when asked to respond.
“I think we can all agree that Sen. Cruz is not a fan,” he said.
‘Mitch’s driving force was pretty clear’
Among right-wing Republicans in both chambers, McConnell has become such a flashpoint that on Tuesday evening, when the House failed to impeach DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in an embarrassing vote, a Senate GOP aide texted in jest: “Will be interesting to see how they blame McConnell for this failed vote.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he doesn’t blame McConnell for the way the border bill turned out, saying, “On this one, Mitch’s driving force was pretty clear for a long time — was Ukraine.”
“Even leaders have political capital, and he spent a lot of political capital on Ukraine,” Cramer said, adding that he doesn’t think McConnell misread the conference.
He attributed the shifting landscape to a more independent-minded Republican Party and “the ability to be a celebrity senator nowadays.” Cramer said his colleagues make a name for themselves “simply by saying ‘no’ to everything and demonizing things before you’ve seen them,” adding, “It’s become way too easy to do that, there’s too much of an audience for it.”
“It’s a lot easier than doing the hard work of legislating,” he said.