McConnell’s Leadership in Jeopardy After Sending Lankford on a ‘Suicide Mission’ in Border Negotiations
An increasing number of Republican senators believe it is time for Mitch McConnell’s ousting as GOP leader.
When Senate negotiators unveiled their 370 page supplemental funding bill Sunday night, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer planned to schedule a vote on the legislation Wednesday. How things have changed in less than 72 hours. The bipartisan-negotiated supplemental is dead. It’s dead not because of Senator James Lankford, the head Republican negotiator, but because of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. With the Senate now set to consider a stand-alone supplemental for Ukraine, a country whose border security McConnell values more than his own, one can’t help but wonder if this is what McConnell wanted all along.
Since September, a revolving group of senators have been negotiating behind closed doors on a supplemental funding bill that would tie Ukraine, Israel, and Indo-Pacific aid to border security. For months, members of the Republican conference were asking for more clarity and detail on what was going to be included in the overly-hyped border deal. Claims made in various statements, leaks, and reports on the negotiations—which primarily involved Senators James Lankford of Oklahoma, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Chris Murphy of Connecticut—were wide ranging. One day, reports would claim talks were heating up or progress was being made. The next, negotiations were on ice and negotiators were at an impasse, particularly when it came to the president’s parole powers, which ultimately were not addressed in the final version of the bill.
All of a sudden, negotiators dropped the full text of the bill like an atomic bomb on Capitol Hill. The final product spanned 370 pages and would cost American taxpayers $118.3 billion. Sixty of the $118.3 billion supplemental was directed towards supporting Ukraine. Another $14 billion was for aid to Israel, and $20 billion was to ostensibly secure the southern border.
Despite receiving about a sixth of the supplemental funding, immigration and border security provisions received the most language. The provisions were utterly toothless—especially when it came to provisions that would require the use of a “border emergency authority” to stem the tide of migrants entering the United States. Beyond its inefficacious provisions, the legislation would have codified a parallel asylum system that the Biden administration has already implemented via regulation (though the legality of this system is dubious at best) to bring millions more migrants into the United States, as well as a massive expansion in visa and working permits.
Several senators previously told The American Conservative the bill was worse than they ever would have expected. How was this the final product?
“We were open to funding for Ukraine to secure the border,” Senator Ron Johnson told TAC in a phone interview. “That’s what I thought the marching orders were, that’s what we thought McConnell had agreed to, but we have to secure the border and it can’t be a sham. It’s got to be real border security.”
To ensure real border security, “I pushed for making the Ukraine funding contingent on actual border metrics,” like threshold and performance measures over a number of months, Johnson told TAC. “We definitely had a majority of our conference support that.”
“The only way you can get border security with a lawless administration is you have to tie it to something they want,” which was aid for Ukraine, Senator Rick Scott of Florida told TAC in a phone interview. “So a lot of us, and Ron Johnson was probably the most vocal on this, said we’ve got to have metrics and the numbers need to come down to the Trump numbers, or you don’t get the Ukraine aid over a period of time.”
In an exclusive interview with POLITICO published on Wednesday, McConnell insisted that “The reason we’ve been talking about the border is because [the bill’s critics] wanted to.”
“There are a number of provisions in this bill that if they were made better and actually forced Joe Biden to do his job, we’d all vote for it,” Ohio Senator J.D. Vance said in defense of GOP senators rejecting the bill. “I’m maybe the biggest skeptic of Ukraine aid in the United States Senate. I care much more about the American southern border, but I’m not going to vote for a border security package that doesn’t do any border security.”
“This idea that we signed a political death compact, where we wanted to negotiate for border security, so we’re therefore committed to supporting any package that comes out of these negotiations is ridiculous,” Vance later added.
The reason the bill failed to secure the border, however, is because McConnell, after deputizing Lankford, prevented the senator from Oklahoma from attaching Ukraine aid to any real, concrete metric of bringing down the number of migrants entering the United States.
“Without telling anybody, apparently, McConnell, on his own, told Lankford that’s not even on the table,” Johnson said. Later, “we had that confirmed by Synema, who said that James never asked for that.” For Johnson, it was “a breach of [McConnell’s] leadership position” by blowing off the consensus view of the conference.
After “McConnell told Lankford he couldn’t do that,” Scott decided to ask leadership if those were the marching orders leadership gave Lankford at a Senate GOP conference luncheon. “It’s my understanding that that leadership has decided that they will not allow metrics to be tied to Ukraine aid,” Scott said, paraphrasing his remarks at the luncheon. “Nobody said it wasn’t true.” With an exasperated tone, Scott repeated himself: “I brought it up and nobody said it wasn’t true.”
“James is a good person. He’s a hard worker. I think he was always optimistic that he could get something done, but it was a suicide mission,” Scott told TAC of Lankford. “He didn’t have what he needed.”
“It’s not James Lankford’s fault. It’s Mitch McConnell’s fault,” Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri told POLITICO.
It’s not the first time McConnell has bucked his own conference for the sake of Ukraine aid. The Senate supplemental negotiations began after McConnell, at the behest of President Joe Biden, failed to convince the Republican conference to vote for a continuing resolution negotiated by a leadership-deputized group of Senate appropriators in September 2023. McConnell ally Senator Susan Collins headed up the negotiations with her Democratic appropriations counterpart Senator Patty Murray. The Senate version of the continuing resolution would have provided $6 billion of aid for Ukraine while funding the government through mid November. Senate Republicans shut him down while the Republican-controlled House warned at the time it would be dead on arrival.
If some Republican senators thought previous negotiations between appropriators were shrouded in secrecy, recent border negotiations were even more opaque. “It was completely secret. They weren’t telling us about the components,” Johnson said. At another point, Johnson called McConnell’s negotiation strategy “fatally flawed.”
The conference should have functioned like a board of directors of a company in the midst of negotiations, Johnson suggested. The conference should have established “red lines,” but “all those decisions,” such as divorcing Ukraine aid to real border metrics, “got made by McConnell,” Johnson continued. “This is the way McConnell operates. I mean, even his people in leadership have no idea if he’s got a strategy or what it is—he keeps everything close to the vest.”
“Coming from the private sector, it’s just such a foreign way of having a leader,” Johnson told TAC. “In the private sector, you have mission vision statements, you have annual goals. People understand their roles, where it’s appropriate, you have to try and get consensus of the managerial team. That doesn’t happen here at all. We’re all supposed to be equal. It’s just that there’s one a whole lot more equal than the rest of us.”
“You see the result,” said Johnson. “The result is a debacle.”
Now, McConnell is trying to brush his failure under the rug. “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 told POLITICO. “I don’t know who is at fault here, in terms of trying to cast public blame.”
“He’s realizing that he doesn’t want to get blamed for this travesty, and so now he’s just trying to shift the blame so that he doesn’t have to accept the blame of a completely flawed negotiation strategy on an issue where the vast majority of Americans agree with us, not Democrats,” Johnson explained. “So why in the world would you enter secret negotiations on an issue when the public is squarely behind your position?”
“These were real tactical errors that he’s made,” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul told POLITICO of the Senate minority leader. “I think his public opinion polls show it.”
Johnson, Scott, and their allies in the Senate GOP conference are now trying to ensure the $118.3 billion supplemental stays dead while also killing the clean supplemental for Ukraine and Israel because Congress still has not delivered border security for the American people.
Pivoting from one failed supplemental to likely another makes it “obvious that Mitch’s top priority is to provide aid to Ukraine—to secure Ukraine’s border before ours,” Johnson claimed. As for the Senate, Johnson says “this is not the world’s greatest deliberative body. We hardly deliberate at all.”
Vance called McConnell’s pivot “a huge surprise” in an interview with Steve Bannon on Wednesday. “The establishment, combined with the Democrats, are then going to cut out the border piece of this package, which leaves Ukraine, Taiwan, Israel funding and try to jam it through today.”
“I have no idea why we’re doing it except for this: Senate leadership is obsessed,” Vance told Bannon. It’s “a borderline fetish with getting Ukraine money and they’re willing to give away all of our leverage to get it. Everybody needs to say this is a no-go. Vote no on this package. It is the single most important thing to kill in the U.S. Senate since I’ve been here. The worst piece of legislation, I think, in the U.S. Senate since I’ve been here and we’ve got to absolutely get it out of here.”
“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,’” Hawley said, per POLITICO. “It just seems like total chaos to me.”
“I am hoping my colleagues are really taking a close hard look and asking themselves, ‘How did we get in a position where we’re being blamed for a problem that was 100% caused by Biden and his Democrat allies in Congress?’” Johnson said. “McConnell led us into that.”
“This wasn’t good for him. This wasn’t good for any of us,” Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama said of McConnell’s management of the supplemental negotiations. “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.”
“There needs to be a change in how we manage and govern the conference,” Scott said. “Everybody I talk to basically agrees. I don’t know people who don’t agree with me that we have to govern the conference a different way.”
“Leadership really screwed this up,” Vance said at a press conference. “They knew, or at least should have known, that this bill was never actually going to get there.”
Nevertheless, “one of the leverage points that McConnell has, and he reminds us of it all the time, including last Wednesday at lunch,” is campaign funds, Johnson claimed. McConnell “reminds everybody how much he has raised for the Senate Leadership Fund. That ends up apparently being pretty powerful leverage for most members.”
“Doesn’t impact me in the slightest, as you can tell,” Johnson added.