WASHINGTON — Inside a special closed-door Republican meeting on Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., cast doubt on an emerging deal to tighten immigration laws, citing GOP opposition to its provisions and telling senators that linking the two measures could also sink Ukraine aid.
It represents a marked shift for the top Senate Republican, who has been pushing hard for a bipartisan deal to pass the border legislation and foreign aid bill together through the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-led House.
“When we started this, the border united us and Ukraine divided us,” McConnell told his fellow Republicans, according to a source familiar with his remarks. “The politics on this have changed.”
The shift comes as Donald Trump, who has pushed congressional GOP members to kill the deal, marches to the Republican presidential nomination and as hard-right Senate Republicans have grown increasingly pointed in their criticism of McConnell.
Trump’s desire to wield chaos at the border as a political weapon against President Joe Biden in a general election campaign is a factor in the ongoing congressional negotiations, with McConnell telling Republicans: “We don’t want to do anything to undermine him.”
“We’re in a quandary,” McConnell said, according to the source. The remarks were first reported by Punchbowl.
A second source with knowledge of the meeting confirmed that McConnell told the senators that Trump’s position could make it difficult for Republicans to support an immigration deal.
A person familiar with the Senate Republican deliberations says there is growing concern that a significant number of GOP members aren’t interested in striking a deal when it comes to immigration, leading to questions if it is worth it to continue to link any border deal to Ukraine funding. Senate leadership is looking for concrete evidence of interest in a border deal and considering whether to decouple the two issues and move forward, this person said.
But decoupling the measures could hasten the death of both. The demand to link Ukraine aid with immigration restrictions came from House Republican leaders, who have been wary of passing Ukraine aid for months — with or without a border security package. While the Senate may find the votes to pass a Ukraine and Israel aid bill, it is unlikely to secure a path to passage in the GOP-led House.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said that McConnell even quoted Trump during his comments to Republicans.
“He also laid out the quandary we’re in,” Cramer said of McConnell. “He never made a suggestion, actually, or picked a position — I think we all know his position — but rather just outlining the historical quandary. And he did a good job of quoting Donald Trump from 2018, you know, saying that we’ll never get a Democrat to vote for this stuff.”
The meeting came on the same day that a group of Senate conservatives held a news conference and torched the emerging bipartisan deal to impose tougher asylum and parole laws, complaining that it doesn’t go far enough and taking aim at McConnell for endorsing the negotiations.
“The bill is not designed to fix this problem. … The chances of this bill passing the House are 0.000%. It ain’t gonna pass,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters. “This bill represents Senate Republican leadership waging war on House Republican leadership.”
Cruz recalled that at a Senate GOP meeting Tuesday, he spoke up and told senators the legislation would give Democrats “political cover” to say they addressed the border situation. “Why on earth would you be teeing up a vote with every Democrat and 10 or 12 Republicans that has no chance of passing the House?” he said.
He tore into McConnell. “Chuck Schumer’s enemies in Congress are conservatives in the Senate and are House Republican leadership,” Cruz said. “And sadly, Mitch McConnell’s enemies are conservatives in the Senate and House Republican leadership.”
Cruz was joined by Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., Rick Scott, R-Fla., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and others who complained that they still haven’t seen the legislation and demanding that they have enough time to review the text. The deal has not been finalized as appropriators are examining its provisions to check the funding levels.
“The problem is our leader,” Johnson said. “Leader McConnell is really the stage manager of this negotiation.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., an author of earlier immigration bills that were more liberal than the pending deal, also said it would be a bad political move to strike an immigration pact with Democrats.
A proponent of the emerging deal, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said he believes at least half of the 49 GOP senators must support the immigration measure for it to have a chance of passage.
“We need at least 25 voting for this or it’s a waste of time, in my opinion,” Tillis said, adding that “there’s a path” to getting there but it’s not assured.