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Behind the border mess: Open GOP rebellion against McConnell

Conservative hardliners once celebrated Mitch McConnell for wrestling the federal judiciary to the right and thwarting progressive hopes.

Now he is under open attack from the right for even trying to work with Democrats on the border.

The Senate GOP leader is facing internal resistance not seen in more than a year as Republicans descend into discord over two issues they once demanded be linked: border security and the war in Ukraine.

McConnell, now nearing his 82nd birthday, is determined to fund the Ukrainian war effort, a push his allies have depicted as legacy-defining. But now that his party is set on Wednesday to reject a bipartisan trade of tougher border policies for war funding, his far-right critics are speaking out more loudly: Several held a press conference Tuesday where they denounced his handling of the border talks, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) calling on McConnell to step down.

In an interview, McConnell rejected the criticism and said his antagonists fail to recognize the reality of divided government.

“I’ve had a small group of persistent critics the whole time I’ve been in this job. They had their shot,” McConnell said, referring to Sen. Rick Scott’s (R-Fla.) challenge to his leadership in 2022.

“The reason we’ve been talking about the border is because they wanted to, the persistent critics,” he added. “You can’t pass a bill without dealing with a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate.”

Despite that pragmatism, McConnell’s job is only getting harder. If he runs for another term in leadership next year, a tougher fight than Scott gave him seems almost inevitable.

That is in part because of Donald Trump, whom McConnell barely acknowledges after criticizing his role in the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021. The former president played a leading role in killing the border deal and has called consistently for McConnell’s ouster. And at this time next year, Trump could well be back in the White House.

More and more of Senate Republicans’ internal strife is seeping out into public view, exposing years-old beefs that are still simmering. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) posted a fundraising link asking donors to “kill this border bill” in the middle of a closed-door GOP meeting on Monday and demanded “new leadership,” while Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) memed McConnell as Charlie Brown whiffing on an attempt to kick a football held by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.).

“I’ve been super unhappy since this started,” Johnson said in an interview. “Leader McConnell completely blew this.”

Trump and Speaker Mike Johnson helped squash the border bill’s prospects in the House while Ron Johnson, Lee, Cruz, Vance and Scott pummeled it on TV and social media. The intensity of that assault turned many GOP senators sour on a border security deal that would have amounted to the most conservative immigration bill backed by a Democratic president in a generation — a bill they once said was the key to unlocking Ukraine aid.

Though McConnell touted the work of Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and the bill’s endorsement by the Border Patrol union, he conceded what was obvious by Monday night: This legislation is dead.

“The reason we ended up where we are is the members decided, since it was never going to become law, they didn’t want to deal with it,” McConnell said in the interview. “I don’t know who is at fault here, in terms of trying to cast public blame.”

At Tuesday’s party meeting, Cruz told McConnell that the border deal was indefensible, while Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) questioned why the GOP would walk away from it, according to two people familiar with the meeting. That followed a Monday evening private meeting where Johnson got into a near-shouting match with Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), one of several senators who has tried to rebut Trump’s influence on the party.

Young played down the spat afterward: “Ron and I have a very good relationship. We can be very candid with one another.”

McConnell’s loud critics are among those most responsible for raising opposition to the border deal, attacking its provisions while the text was being finalized. They raised such a ruckus that none of McConnell’s potential successors as leader — Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and John Thune (R-S.D.) — offered to support it.

McConnell can’t be ejected spontaneously like a House speaker, meaning his job is safe until the end of the year. He also has major sway over the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC that may have to help Cruz, Scott and other Republicans win reelection.

And McConnell is not without defenders. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said any attempt to blame McConnell for the border crackup is “a bit misplaced.”

Indeed, McConnell was OK with just approving foreign aid back in the fall, but agreed to link it to border security after rank-and-file Republicans grew eager to extract concessions from Democrats in order to get Ukraine money.

“It’s not James’ fault, he did the best he could under the circumstances. It’s not Mitch’s fault,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.).

The historical record holds plenty of quotes from McConnell’s current critics asking for stronger border policy during the Trump administration. Many of them now have since changed their tune to say Biden doesn’t need new laws at all to enforce border security.

“We all wanted to see border security. And I think a lot of our members were demanding that in exchange for the rest of the funding. That’s an issue our conference needs to be aware of,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), the No. 4 leader. “The conference wanted border security.”

The animosity McConnell now faces from Ron Johnson, Lee and others isn’t new either: They’ve questioned Senate GOP leadership’s decisions for years.

Ron Johnson’s long been a thorn in McConnell’s side for years, particular after many Republicans abandoned his reelection bid in 2016. Cruz has sparred with McConnell since getting to the Senate in 2013, Lee frequently breaks with leadership and a number of newer GOP senators voted for Scott over McConnell in 2022.

One GOP senator, granted anonymity to assess the situation candidly, said that the new wave of attacks could be happening because McConnell’s opponents sense weakness — or just out of “personal pique” over years-old disagreements.

“For three months it’s been nothing but border and Ukraine, border and Ukraine, border and Ukraine. I don’t know how many speeches I’ve heard … and now all of a sudden, it’s: ‘We’re not going to do that,’” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), another of the McConnell critics. “It just seems like total chaos to me.”

Either way, the 180 among many Republicans is evidence of a major drift away from McConnell’s style of Republicanism and toward Trump’s. McConnell hasn’t talked to Trump since the Jan. 6 riot and tried to turn the party in a surprisingly deal-centric direction during the first two years of President Joe Biden’s presidency.

Just two years ago, debt ceiling increases, gun safety and infrastructure laws passed with McConnell’s blessing — all a reflection of his view that protecting the filibuster requires working with Democrats on bipartisan bills.

Now the reality is that Trump, the likely nominee, doesn’t want a deal that Republicans set out to secure four months ago. Deal-making without Trump’s blessing appears impossible, and that’s a challenging dynamic for the longtime GOP leader.

“This wasn’t good for him. This wasn’t good for any of us,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) of McConnell, whom he backed in 2022. “And I’m not gonna say he’s the total cause of it, but we got to have a better plan. This didn’t work out for us.”

Ursula Perano contributed to this report.

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