Senate GOP campaign chief challenges McConnell over Ukraine, border strategy

Senate GOP campaign chief Steve Daines (R-Mt.) challenged Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) several times behind closed doors this week over the political wisdom of moving forward with a Ukraine and Israel funding package without border security reforms, a path McConnell endorsed Tuesday.

Daines, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, warned his colleagues that advancing a bill to provide military aid to Ukraine and Israel without provisions to secure the southern border would hurt Senate Republican candidates, according to senators who attended the meetings.

Some of those candidates are emphasizing the need to secure the border and Daines expressed concern about undercutting them, senators noted.

“The atmosphere was very tense,” one GOP lawmaker said of a Senate Republican meeting Friday morning. The meeting took place before lawmakers voted on a motion to advance funding for Ukraine without border reforms.

“Steve Daines has spoken up at multiple meetings, implicitly criticizing McConnell today where he said, ‘I just want to tell you, the path we’re going down will have ramifications. It looks bad to really vote no on this border bill and then flip around and give money to Ukraine. It undercuts our candidates,’” said the lawmaker who attended the Friday morning meeting.

A second Republican source familiar with Daines’s comment said he was making the point that prioritizing the issue of Ukraine over the border is going to be an issue for Senate Republican candidates.

Daines was one of two members of the elected Senate Republican leadership to vote against a motion to advance a Ukraine and Israel funding package without border security reforms. Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) also voted no.

McConnell has made the argument to colleagues that the $95.3 billion emergency defense spending package is vital to U.S. national security interests and that abandoning Ukraine when it is running out of weapons and ammunition would be a huge mistake.  

Speaking before the votes on advancing funding for Ukraine, McConnell told his colleagues they faced the “weighty responsibilities” of needing to invest in “hard power” at a time when President Biden has been reluctant to use it.

He also urged them “to commit to allies that fear being abandoned” and “to address the requirements of long-term competition” with enemies and rivals such as Russia, Iran and China.

On Tuesday, McConnell recommended moving ahead with the national security spending package without border security reforms because he didn’t see any kind of border deal getting enough votes to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate and GOP-controlled House.

“There are other parts of this supplemental that are extremely important as well: Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan. We still in my view ought to tackle the rest of it because it’s important, not that the border isn’t important but we can’t get an outcome,” he said.

Daines was the first member of the Senate GOP leadership to announce his opposition to the bipartisan border deal that Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) negotiated with Senate Democrats and the White House.

“I can’t support a bill that doesn’t secure the border, provides taxpayer funded lawyers to illegal immigrants and gives billions to radical open borders groups. I’m a no,” Daines posted on the social media site X on Monday.

Daines, who is one of 31 Republican senators endorsing Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, said President Biden “should instead use his executive authority to reinstitute the Trump policies he cancelled.

He told The Hill Friday that illegal immigration and border security has become the top issue of the 2024 campaign and that it’s unwise for Republicans to support an emergency foreign aid package while an average of 10,000 migrants are streaming into the country.

“As we listen to the American people, listen to my constituents, they tell us that the highest priority needs to be securing the southern border. So if we’re doing what the folks back home are asking to do, that has to remain our highest priority,” he said.

Asked about McConnell’s argument that there’s “no real chance” to pass border security law given the gulf between the White House, Senate Democrats and House Republicans, Daines said: “I think it’s very important you don’t give up this fight.”

“This is not an immigration fight. This is a border security battle. This is a national security battle,” he said.

Daines said he’s looked at data indicating that known terrorists have crossed the border.

“If people listen to what the folks back home are saying, the border’s become the No. 1 issue in the nation. So why do you give up trying to find a way to secure the border?” he said.

Several Republican candidates in battleground states panned the border security deal that was initially part of the package funding Ukraine and Israel.

Sam Brown, who is running to unseat Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), wrote on the social media site X that it “must be rejected” and “won’t solve the border crisis created by Joe Biden.”

Dave McCormick, who is challenging Sen. Bob Casey (D) in Pennsylvania, declared on X: “This is not compromise, it’s capitulation.”

As the Senate GOP campaign chairman, Daines’s mission is to pick up a net of two Senate seats to put Republicans back in the majority. His home state, where vulnerable Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) faces re-election, is a key battleground.

This is not the first time McConnell has clashed with his NRSC chairman over strategy.

McConnell and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) butted heads in the 2022 election cycle, when Scott headed the campaign committee.

He wasn’t happy that Scott rolled out an alternative agenda — An 11 Point Plan to Rescue America — during a campaign year, worried that it would muddle the Senate GOP message.

McConnell knocked Scott’s proposal to sunset federal legislation after five years as “just a bad idea,” recognizing that Democrats would use it to accuse Republicans of wanting to sunset Medicare and Social Security.

Scott said he never envisioned it ending those popular programs and later amended his plan to make that explicit.

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