GOP looks for Plan B on Ukraine with border bill looking DOA

Border 012624 Photo Allison RobbertAP

GOP supporters of aid to Ukraine are beginning to look for a Plan B as they come to grips with the reality that Senate legislation to boost border security and deal with a host of foreign crises is dead in the House.

The virulent conservative opposition to the bill has led some Republican senators to speculate about moving military aid for Ukraine without any attached border reforms. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) say they are committed to bringing the package linking money for Ukraine with border security reforms to the Senate floor, but senators say both realize it has little to no prospect of making it to President Biden’s desk.  

Senate Republicans think that’s why McConnell floated the idea of possibly delinking Ukraine money and border security during a meeting Wednesday by telling colleagues that it will be a heavy lift to pass a border security package in the middle of a Republican presidential primary.  

“It’s probably done in the sense that I don’t think the House is going to be for the end product, and I think it’s clear where the nominee of our party’s going to be,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), referring to former President Trump’s efforts to derail Senate the border security bill.  

A GOP senator who requested anonymity to talk about internal party dynamics said McConnell knows that Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) won’t bring the bill to the House floor.  

The senator said Trump, who opposes the Senate’s border bill, has “a lot of influence on the House and particularly on Johnson.” 

“If he takes [the Senate bill] up, I think he’s a goner,” the lawmaker added.  

A Senate Republican aide said McConnell appears to be looking for an “off-ramp” to separate Ukraine funding from border security legislation.

A GOP senator who attended a special conference meeting on Ukraine funding held Wednesday afternoon said McConnell is “laying the predicate” for moving Ukraine funding without border reform components and speculated he may try to include military aid for Ukraine in a regular spending package to fund the government through the rest of this year. 

Congress must pass two funding packages by March 1 and March 8 to avoid partial government shutdowns. 

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), McConnell’s top deputy, told reporters Thursday that leaders still hope to pass Ukraine funding and border security reforms in the same package but acknowledged the bill faces a “critical moment” and leaders may have to switch to “Plan B.” 

Asked what Plan B would be, Thune quipped: “Hold that thought.”

Trump’s easy victories in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have had a huge impact on the Capitol Hill politics surrounding the border talks.  

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise’s (R-La.) chief of staff, Brett Horton, sent a blunt message to Senate Republican offices when he told them at a lunch meeting Thursday that the Senate deal to fund Ukraine and secure the border won’t even get a vote in the House.  

“Scalise’s chief got up and the first thing he said was, ‘This border bill, if you send it to us, is dead on arrival. Dead.’ He said, ‘I just want to be clear about that, we will not take it up, we will not vote on it. It is dead. End of discussion,’” said a Senate Republican source familiar with the comments at the meeting.  

“So that sent a message,” the source said.   

A person familiar with the House GOP leadership aide’s comments noted that Johnson and Scalise have said publicly that they would oppose a Senate bill that reportedly includes 50,000 new green cards, expedited work permits and enhanced deportation authority that would only kick in after more than 4,000 or 5,000 migrants cross the border in a day. 

Senate Republicans say that GOP leadership has confirmed these details in briefings with their staff.  

Senate conservatives who oppose the Senate border security deal are already putting pressure on McConnell to not even allow it to come to the floor, arguing that sending it to the House will only put Speaker Johnson in an awkward position.  

“Schumer wants to do it so every Senate Democrat can say, ‘See, we tried to solve the border but the mean congressional Republicans wouldn’t let us.’ It’s all about an ad and a talking point. It’s designed to fail but to give them political cover to pretend they’re solving the problem,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). 

“It’s also designed when it goes over there for everyone in the media and all the Democrats to beat up on the Speaker every day from now until Election Day for not passing this terrible bill,” Cruz added.  

Some Senate Republicans predict that Johnson would immediately face a motion to vacate — an effort to unseat the Speaker that toppled his predecessor — if he attempted to pass a bill that so deeply divides the GOP. 

Republican senators allied with McConnell who want to pass Ukraine funding and border security reforms in the same package, however, say conservative critics are mischaracterizing the bill.  

They also say that Trump, who is in frequent contact with Speaker Johnson, is working behind the scenes to tank the bill simply to deprive President Biden of a major legislative victory on securing the border.  

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a frequent Trump critic, called the president’s efforts to derail the bill to keep the issue alive on the campaign trail “appalling.”  

“He’s contacted members of Congress telling them that he doesn’t want a border deal because he wants to run on this issue. Appalling,” he said. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Senate leadership team, said Trump could still run on the issue of border security even if Biden signs the Senate’s border reforms into law.  

“You’re not going to turn off what’s happening at the border like a water faucet. So, this is going to continue to be a problem, and it’s obviously a very potent political issue,” he said.  

But Trump’s allies say it’s a moot point because the bill’s not going to pass the House.  

“It’s not going to pass the House anyway,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.). 

Cruz on Wednesday said the Senate border deal has a “zero point zero, zero, zero” chance of passing the House.  

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