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The Underminer

Mitch McConnell already undermined one Speaker of the House with his insistence on funding Ukraine. Senate Republicans speak out against his designs to make it two.

Senate Lawmakers Speak To Media After Weekly Policy Luncheons

Mike Johnson had just become Speaker of the House, putting an end to the more than three weeks of the lower chamber being without a leader. With the speakership filled, there is much to be done, and not a lot of time to do it: The legislature has two weeks and change to pass the requisite appropriations bills and avoid a shutdown, even as the United States may be sleepwalking into starting another world war. The Louisianan Republican rose to the rostrum and delivered his first speech as Speaker of the House. About half way through the speech, Johnson told his House colleagues that “the first bill that I’m going to bring to this floor in just a little while will be in support of our dear friend Israel, and we’re overdue in getting that done.”

Some antennas perked up—was Johnson going to be a stalwart against another possible world war, or would he be its midwife? Yet what Johnson left out of his summary of the first bill he’d bring to the floor was crucial: He didn’t mention anything about simultaneously funding Ukraine. Johnson later confirmed that he’d be separating aid to Israel and Ukraine. “I told the staff at the White House today that our consensus among House Republicans is we need to bifurcate those issues,” Johnson told Fox News’ Sean Hannity.


While Johnson’s views on Ukraine are more in line with the rank and file House Republican, Johnson also told Hannity that “we have a responsibility—a stewardship responsibility—over the precious treasure of the American people, and we have to make sure that the White House is providing the people with some accountability for the dollars.” After the House spent three weeks searching for a speaker nominee that could court enough Republican votes to earn a majority on the floor, it’s no surprise that Johnson, who has objected to additional Ukraine aid in the past, basically represents the conference median with respect to Ukraine.

The fact that Johnson is even working with his conference in the first place is more than one can currently say of his Republican counterpart in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Last week, McConnell endorsed President Joe Biden’s proposal for a jumbled $106 billion aid package. The $106 billion would be divided into five different buckets: $60 billion for Ukraine, $14 billion would go to Israel and so-called border security efforts apiece, $10 billion for general humanitarian relief, and $7 billion for the Indo-Pacific region. The funds for border security, Senator Rick Scott of Florida told The American Conservative, “are not really for border security. It’s money for sanctuary cities.”

“All it’s actually going to do is get us more migrants,” Scott added.

Just a month after his own Republican conference rejected McConnell’s plan to sneak $6 billion for Ukraine into the Senate’s version of the continuing resolution, the minority leader is yet again pushing a boondoggle worth billions.

During a phone interview, TAC asked Scott why McConnell would try to tie Ukraine funding to another spending bill after his previous effort failed. “I have no idea,” Scott told TAC. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”


Though a lot of the Republican conference in the Senate maintains support for Ukraine, “I think we have a lot of questions on Ukraine,” Scott continued. “We want to know where this money is going, we want to know what the plan is, we want to know exactly what they need, and we want to know what Europe is doing to do their part.”

“If the Biden administration’s case for additional Ukraine aid is not strong enough to stand on its own, then packaging them is an insulting request to lay before Congress. It is unreasonable for the administration to exploit an aid package for Israel to siphon off billions of taxpayer dollars in yet another blank check for Ukraine,” Senator Mike Lee of Utah told TAC via email. Regarding the reception in the Republican conference for McConnell’s support for the Biden aid plan, Lee wrote, “A growing number of legislators recognize that bundling massive spending bills—for purposes foreign or domestic—is a gambit to prevent us from inspecting them too closely, or to attach unpopular measures to vital and necessary ones.”

Nevertheless, McConnell and his allies continue pushing for the package on Capitol Hill and beyond. 

On Monday, McConnell and Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova made a joint appearance at the center that bears the Kentucky Senator’s name at the University of Louisville in an effort to drum up (or feign) some grassroots support for the war cause.

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, however, told TAC in a phone interview that McConnell’s maneuvering for Ukraine is “very unpopular in Kentucky”: “Spontaneously, people come up to me no matter which part of the state I’m in,” to say they’ve had enough of endless wars, Paul said.

“If I’m in eastern Kentucky, they come up to me and say, ‘we’ve got problems here at home,’” Paul continued. “We also have a lot of poverty in eastern Kentucky, and they just don’t like sending money overseas, even to countries that like us or that we’re allied with. If we send it, they want it to be paid for. They want to take it away from a wasteful part of the government—and believe me, they are like me in believing there’s a lot of waste. Having a speaker come to a McConnell-funded speech at U of L really doesn’t indicate any kind of grassroots support from Kentucky. I find no support for lumping them all together. I’ve had no one come up to me saying please, please, please give another 50 or 60 billion to Ukraine. I don’t find it at all. So I think the position is out of touch and doesn’t represent conservatives in Kentucky at all.”

That wasn’t going to stop McConnell from trying. It is “an especially critical moment in the history of our two countries,” McConnell said in his remarks introducing the ambassador. 

For her part, Markarova gave McConnell the fireworks he wanted: “This new Hitler has to be stopped while we can still stop him in Ukraine,” Markarova told the audience. To be clear, she was talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin and not the Azov Battalion or other Ukrainian soldiers seen wearing Nazi symbols like the sonnenrad—a cancelable offense in the United States, but earns you billions in Ukraine. “Otherwise,” the ambassador continued, “this conflict will widen and all of us will have to fight.” So Ukraine might hope.

Regime change in Russia, Markarova suggested, is “a win-win for all of us.” McConnell might be convinced, but his conference is not.

“Ukraine and Israel are distinct issues separated by many factors, including where they fall in the scope of America’s national interests,” Lee of Utah told TAC. “Congress should have the opportunity to consider and vote on prospective aid packages individually.”

“Proponents of further Ukraine funding should be able to articulate how their massive financial demand on American taxpayers directly furthers the security interests of the United States,” the Utah Senator added.

“I think Americans want Ukraine to win, but they also know that we have $33 trillion worth of debt, high inflation, and high interest rates,” Scott said. “But I think they want to make sure we’re being responsible with their dollars.” Though the American public may be supportive of both Israel’s and Ukraine’s causes, they need to “get their questions answered the right way,” the Florida Senator claimed.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Johnson unveiled his plan to provide aid to Israel: A $14.3 billion package offset by cuts to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which received a massive influx of funding from the Inflation Reduction Act. McConnell was quick to try and undercut the new speaker of the house, as was Senator Susan Collins of Maine who brokered the previous continuing resolution that included Ukraine-funding provisions. The pair’s insistence on Ukraine funding during the shutdown negotiations in September undermined then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, which resulted in a bad deal for Republicans and contributed to McCarthy’s ousting.

McConnell’s insistence on tying Ukraine funding to anything and everything “undermines Speaker Johnson's position,” Paul told TAC.

“You know, recent events have shown that it's difficult to become Speaker of the House, and it's sometimes difficult to remain Speaker of the House,” Paul continued. “Johnson has outlined publicly that he's going to do Israel aid alone, and he’s going to pay for it, and I’m supportive of that position. Lumping them all together in the kitchen sink, putting tens of billions of dollars for Ukraine, for Taiwan, for border enforcement is not a conservative notion.”

“McConnell has allied with Biden and Schumer on this, not with conservatives,” Paul added.

“What we got to do is support the new speaker. We have a majority in the House, and so what we ought to do is let them take the lead,” Scott told TAC. “There’s two reasons to follow [the House],” Scott continued, “One, I think it’s the right policy. Number two is we ought to give Mike Johnson a shot at getting something passed. He also is going to do something fiscally responsible and make sure it’s paid for, which I completely and wholeheartedly agree with. We ought to start acting like every family does. When they have an emergency, or they want to do something different, they figure out how they’re going to reduce spending some other way.”

What a Republican leader with a minority in the senate should do in this case is quite simple, according to Scott: “Let [the House] take the lead, support what they are doing, and don’t undermine what they’re doing.”

Yet McConnell and his allies are expected to keep pushing the Biden spending bonanza. Count former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo among McConnell’s backers. Pompeo released a statement Tuesday in support of providing more aid to Ukraine, claiming, “The United States must stand with Ukraine in its existential fight for national survival.” His critique of the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy is that it hasn’t gone far enough: “The US and our allies should be accelerating the flow of weapons and ammunition to Kyiv to further decimate Russian military capabilities. The Biden administration should reverse its policy of denying weapons and adequate weapons supplies that would help Ukrainian forces end the fighting sooner than the current path we are on.”

While Paul told TAC that McConnell does have allies in the GOP conference that want to continue funding Ukraine, Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio told Politico that “there’s actually pretty wide consensus that we should separate Israel from the package.”

“Whether there are nine Republicans who are willing to break off and join the Democrats is an open question,” Vance added.

Lee seems hopeful the conference will stand against the Biden-McConnell aid package. “With Speaker Johnson opposed to passing everything as a package, it will be even harder for Senate leadership to force it upon the conference," Lee told TAC.

“Ultimately, the discussion every day at lunch has been, ‘Do you really want to topple speaker Mike Johnson? He's only been speaker for a week, and do you want to force something on him, that when he puts it up for a vote, will cost him his speakership?’” Paul told TAC.

“I think ultimately that viewpoint will win the day,” Paul said. In the end, “McConnell won’t get his way, Biden won’t get his way, and neither will Schumer.”


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