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How Conservatives Quietly Outmaneuvered Weakened McConnell On Ukraine

Mitch McConnell
Image CreditABC News/YouTube

McConnell quietly acknowledged to his colleagues that the Senate bill including the Ukraine funding was not a winning issue for the party.


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suffered a stunning blow this weekend when Republicans in the upper chamber disregarded his repeated calls for prioritizing Ukraine funding by passing the House GOP’s short-term spending bill, which included no provisions for the Volodymyr Zelensky regime.

Publicly, McConnell pretended his move to finance the proxy war in Ukraine was temporarily tabled for the convenience of avoiding an imminent government shutdown. Behind closed doors, the Senate minority leader’s plan to indefinitely send U.S. tax dollars to Eastern Europe was shunned by nearly every member of his party who expressed discomfort with hinging the fate of the government shutdown on Ukraine.

One source familiar with the situation told The Federalist that even McConnell quietly acknowledged to his colleagues that any spending bill that included Ukraine funding was not a winning issue for the party. Yet, he was so committed to putting another country’s financial well-being ahead of his own that he fought his own conference on it.

The Senate GOP’s defiance of McConnell was confirmed when they, at the urging of Senate GOP steering committee members like Sens. Mike Lee and Rick Scott, passed House Republicans’ continuing resolution (CR) instead of the Senate bill.

“When I came in on Saturday morning, I was convinced we were not going to win. The headwinds were totally opposed to us. And then by 1 o’clock, we had decisively defeated McConnell,” a Senate staffer told The Federalist.

Corporate media and Beltway insiders paint the titanic twist as a sign that the longest-serving Senate party leader in US history is losing control of his conference. The Senate Republicans who defied McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s expensive spending package, however, are simply finally harnessing the collective decision-making power they’ve always had to better reflect the party and constituents.

The Mechanics That Made It Happen

Spending negotiations did not start looking grim for McConnell until just one day before FY 2023 spending was set to expire. Up until that point, McConnell was armed with his deal, the support of the Pentagon, and prepared to send billions more U.S. tax dollars to Ukraine.

“It’s rumored that Pentagon officials are on their way over to the Capitol to lobby for Schumer-McConnell. The Military Industrial Complex doesn’t like to lose,” Lee wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The package was standard for the Republican leader who has spent the last two and a half years pressuring his colleagues to join Democrats in subsidizing the war in Eastern Europe.

McConnell previously argued that sending Ukraine money without oversight is “obviously in America’s self-interest” because it benefits the vast U.S. military-industrial complex.

“Republicans should welcome Democrats who are finally willing to spend money on our defense industrial base,” McConnell demanded in his Sept. 11 Senate floor remarks. “Such a bipartisan consensus will not survive if we turn our backs on this conflict.”

The minority leader’s insistence that Ukraine needs an endless stream of U.S. tax dollars was supported by a majority of his colleagues over the last two years with few objections.

Polls, however, show that sending an endless supply of cash is increasingly unpopular with the American people. With the 2024 election nearing, Republicans in both chambers quickly realized they couldn’t afford to risk their congressional careers over another forever war to appease the defense industry and their allies in congressional leadership.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy confirmed on Friday night that the Senate’s “misguided” bill, which included funding for Ukraine, would be “dead on arrival.”

McCarthy’s firmness was unsurprising given the job pressure he faced from members of the House Freedom Caucus who wanted to leverage their GOP majority power to address the surging border crisis, punish the weaponization of the federal government, and cut off American sponsorship of the proxy war.

Senate Republicans’ grumblings about lining Zelensky’s pockets also preceded the weekend fight but rarely made it beyond the walls of their offices. Despite wariness from House Republicans and his conference about indefinitely funding an overseas war, McConnell doubled down on his quest to pass his own legislative package, which catered to Zelensky’s pleas for cash.

While he prepped for a cloture vote in the Senate, House Democrats prepared to support the McConnell bill with a procedural motion to take over the floor. Senate insiders told The Federalist that, at the time, they believed that would happen.

House Democrats understood that waiting for the Senate to take their first cloture vote on the Schumer-McConnell package would have forced the burden of the shutdown on the House GOP, which would have had to choose to pass the Senate bill with Ukraine funding or shut things down. The move would have also likely provided the heat to oust McCarthy from speakership, something Senate Republicans like McConnell would likely disapprove of.

The Democrats in the lower chamber tried to use every trick in the book, including “magic minutes” and pulling a fire alarm to delay the House’s CR vote and make the Senate decide on its bill first.

By midday Saturday, however, Senate Republicans were toying with the idea of abandoning the high-level spending proposed by the Democrat and GOP upper chamber leaders in favor of the House’s CR.

Reclaiming Possession Of The Party

Senators Lee and Scott specifically proposed during a Saturday conference lunch that Republicans in the upper chamber wait for their House GOP colleagues to send over the stopgap. Waiting for the House bill, they argued, would rid them of the burden of passing legislation that goes against Americans’ wishes on Ukraine, keep Republicans from becoming shutdown scapegoats, and harbor McCarthy from the threat of removal for a little longer.

Even shadow leadership race candidates Sens. Cornyn and Thune, who started September by eviscerating House Republicans for opposing the Senate uniparty’s spending plan, expressed support for the plan so they would be seen as sympathetic to the conference that might one day choose them to lead the party.

By the end of the lunch, McConnell and Sen. Susan Collins were the only GOP senators who vocalized disdain for passing the House’s CR. McConnell was eventually forced to publicly declare Republican’s intent to pass the stopgap in an attempt to maintain his appearance of control.

Schumer tried to stifle the vote by starting a live quorum, which requires all senators to convene in the Senate chambers to fulfill their duties to vote. Republicans were prepared to either take down cloture or abstain from voting altogether, but Schumer eventually relented and left his bill off the table.

The Republicans had successfully defied McConnell and delayed Democrats’ spending wishlist until mid-November.

Despite suffering defeat on the short-term funding bill, McConnell is not giving up on his dream to keep Ukraine in the running for future appropriations negotiations. He opened his floor speech on the passage of the CR by pledging to send the Zelensky regime more money before the end of the year.

“I’m confident the Senate will pass further urgent assistance to Ukraine later this year,” McConnell said.

It’s difficult to predict where negotiations will go in the next month. The momentum for the Senate GOP to collectively make its own decisions without McConnell, however, is there and waiting for them to grasp it.

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