Senate Republicans insist border talks remain on track, despite leaked McConnell comments

If the compromise falls apart, the Senate would need a new plan to pass aid to Israel

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters following a closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol October 17, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Senate Republicans insisted on Thursday that talks on border policy — which have become the key to unlocking the aid package for Israel and other U.S. allies — remain on track, despite leaked comments by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) from a GOP conference meeting on Wednesday that had appeared to throw cold water on such a deal.

If those talks do ultimately fall apart amid growing opposition from former President Donald Trump and skepticism from House Republicans, it’s not clear that there’s a concrete backup plan to advance Israel aid and other portions of the bill.

“I was in that meeting, and I didn’t take it that way at all,” Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), told reporters, addressing the reports that McConnell had effectively disavowed the plan of linking border policy to the supplemental.

“He was laying out the political realities of where things are, and it was kind of the elephant in the room conversation,” regarding Trump’s opposition to a deal, Lankford continued. “At the end of it he was very clear, ‘I’m not making any recommendation.’ … This wasn’t a matter of ‘We should do [it]’ or ‘We shouldn’t.’”

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) told reporters on Thursday morning that McConnell “is committed to moving forward with a consensus bill” and that he “didn’t hear anything about bifurcating the various pieces of the supplemental.” He suggested that Republicans should release a transcript of their meeting to debunk claims to the contrary.

According to senators who attended Republicans’ Thursday lunch meeting, McConnell made clear his support for the ongoing border negotiations.

Even if it’s still on track, it’s not certain that the border deal will be enough to bring the supplemental to passage. Republicans, some of whom have grown skeptical of aid to Ukraine, had demanded concessions on the border to allow Ukraine funding in the package to advance. Negotiators say the deal is essentially final, although final text may not be ready until next week, and some Republicans have already voiced concerns.

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) said he’s “skeptical” that the deal will be sufficient. Vance added that he doesn’t think the current deal can pass the House, and that if that’s the case, it “doesn’t make a ton of sense” for Republicans to support a vote on the package.

“One of the real mistakes leadership I think has made in this entire negotiation is, when you don’t give your own membership details about what’s actually in the package, there’s a lot of questioning,” Vance said. “So I think what really happened yesterday is you see a lot of members voice increasing frustration about whether we actually know what’s in this border security package and whether it’s good enough to justify a $61 billion check to Ukraine.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), the lead Democratic negotiator on border policy, said it will likely become clear in the next 24 to 48 hours if Republicans are prepared to support the compromise, adding that he’s “hopeful that the forces of goodwill in the Republican Senate conference are sizable and will win out.”

If the border deal collapses, it’s not clear how the Senate will move Israel aid forward. Such a scenario would likely reinvigorate efforts from conservative Republicans to advance the House-passed supplemental, which also cut funds from the Internal Revenue Service. 

Democrats have insisted that the package must move forward in its entirety, and blocked an effort to advance the House’s Israel package. Growing efforts from Democrats to condition and otherwise regulate Israel aid would likely complicate an effort to pass a stand-alone Israel bill.

Murphy told Jewish Insider that the issue of the alternative path to advance the supplemental if the border deal fails “is not a question for me.”

“The Republicans have made it very clear what they want — that’s the whole reason that I’ve devoted the last four months of my life to trying to do what they want,” Murphy said. “We have produced the compromise that they asked for, with the chosen negotiator they appointed, and it is now up to them as to whether they want to accept the agreement.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who has been skeptical of the border deal and Ukraine funding, said that, without the border policy component, Israel and Ukraine aid should be funded with cuts from elsewhere in the government, such as the IRS cuts passed in the House. Senate Democrats are dead-set against that approach.

But other lawmakers insisted that the funding for Israel, as well as Ukraine, will move forward in some capacity.

“We’re going to continue to fight, because that’s something important too,” Tillis told JI. “I do not want to be a part of history that fails democracy, and that’s a failure if we don’t find a way to fund Ukraine and Israel.”

Tillis also said that “we may have to” ultimately split up the supplemental bill, while insisting “that was not what Mitch McConnell said yesterday.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told JI there is bipartisan support for ensuring aid to Israel and Ukraine, but didn’t provide specifics on how such a package might move forward if the border policy deal fails.

“I think the majority of members on both sides of the aisle believe there’s an imperative to aid Ukraine and Israel, and we need to untangle the political web,” Blumenthal said.

Separately, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who is leading an amendment to the supplemental that would eliminate the administration’s ability to skip the congressional review period before sending weapons to Israel and is supporting an amendment conditioning aid, told JI that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) hadn’t provided any guarantees that the amendments would be voted on, but there have been significant discussions.

“One of the reasons that it’s discussions, not guarantees, is the wording of the supplemental is not yet clear,” Kaine said. “So some of what we’re advocating for could end up being in the bill itself, and so we may not need amendments.”

Kaine said he’s particularly hopeful his amendment will be incorporated into the base bill text, although Senate leadership preserved the waiver authority in the initial version of the bill they released last month.

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