It was an encouraging symbol for the reserved Senate Republican leader, who returned to Washington this week determined to crack down on what he called the “isolationist” wing of his party that was preparing to oppose a $40 billion aid package for the war-torn nation that passed overwhelmingly on Thursday.
The Kentucky resident had already spoken to President Joe Biden on the phone before the trip, telling him he wanted to mitigate former President Donald Trump’s influence by conveying to his allies in Eastern Europe that “Republicans still think NATO is important.”
“My argument for [Biden] was, I want to reinforce with the Europeans after some loose talk during the Trump years about whether NATO matters, that at least at this point, the top Republican that we currently have in Congress has a different point of view,” he said. McConnell in an interview in his office Thursday just off the Senate floor, a few hours after the chamber sent the aid package to Biden’s desk.
McConnell told the president that he wanted to “push back…against isolationist sentiment in my own party. Y [Biden] I agreed that that makes sense.”
The president and McConnell haven’t found much to agree on in the past year and a half. But in a foreign policy crisis that could help define the legacy of the Biden White House, they agree: They agree that a united front is necessary not only to defeat Vladimir Putin, but also to send a message to China. And while McConnell has long rejected Trump’s stance toward Russia and NATO, he has shown greater comfort in doing so publicly now that Trump is out of the White House.
Whether McConnell can keep a swinging party at bay is another question. And it could become a much bigger problem if his party wins back the majority in November; McConnell doesn’t like to split his caucus.
In the end, 11 of 50 Republican senators voted against the expansion. military and humanitarian assistance bill, some complain about the price and others are wary of funneling taxpayer money abroad when there are problems at home. Trump similarly criticized the aid package, and leading Republican candidates did the same. In the House, a whopping 57 Republicans voted no on the package.
Even as he moves to confront that group more directly, McConnell downplayed the divide among congressional Republicans.
“I think 11 votes is a pretty small group,” McConnell said, noting that far fewer will end up opposing Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership. “This is not a major schism. It is a small isolationist group, somewhat encouraged by the former president. But it’s not very widespread among Republicans in Congress, and I don’t think it’s among the general public.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck SchumerMeanwhile, he was eager to tout the fact that all Democrats in the House and Senate supported the Ukraine aid bill. He suggested that McConnell did not do enough to push back the Trump-aligned wing, and criticized the GOP for what he described as a “soft playbook on Putin” on the far right.
“The votes speak for themselves,” Schumer said in a brief interview when asked about McConnell’s efforts to mitigate Trump’s influence. “It is incredible the strength of the MAGA wing, that when there is a brutal and brutal dictator like Putin, they cannot oppose him.”
The debate inside the Republican conference underscores the significant influence Trump still wields within the GOP, even as party leaders move to more directly confront the non-interventionist “America First” wing in recent weeks.
Senator joseph hawley (R-Mo.), one of Trump’s closest allies in the upper house, said that while he was in the minority in Ukraine’s vote this week, his position better reflects the GOP voter base than McConnell’s. And Hawley may soon have others joining him in that field, like JD Vance, the Republican candidate in Ohio.
“I’m a bit of an outlier,” Hawley acknowledged. “But hopefully we’ll have more people join me after November.”
McConnell, meanwhile, dismissed the idea that Hawley’s opinion is rising within the party, arguing that campaign rhetoric doesn’t always herald actual votes on legislation.
“It doesn’t help,” McConnell said of Trump’s stance. “Obviously I disagree with President Trump on that. But campaign discussions are one thing. Governing is another. And I would beg you to focus on the people who vote here. [in the Senate] and what is really happening, not a campaign speech sometimes loose in primaries across the United States.”
Still, as that group grows stronger from the former president’s support, other Republicans insist they have been pushing Biden to do more to help Ukraine from the start, including in the run-up to the invasion, when lawmakers from both parties feared the administration was not doing enough to arm Ukrainians before the attack began.
“Republicans have been way ahead of the White House in terms of making sure Ukraine has what they need,” the senator said. Juan Barraso (R-Wyo.), a member of the Republican leadership who accompanied McConnell on the trip to Ukraine last week. “We have been pulling the White House for a long time. We shook our fists when the president wrung his hands. That has not changed”.
What McConnell described as an “overwhelming” 86-11 vote on the Ukraine aid bill somewhat masks partisan tensions over the issue that linger behind the scenes, and once again came to light this week.
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. sherrod brown (D-Ohio) lamented what he called the “Putin wing” of the GOP that has consistently opposed aid to Ukraine. Senator ted cross (R-Texas) responded by noting that most Democrats voted against his bill in January to sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline before the invasion, a step Biden ultimately took to punish Putin after security forces Russian forces began their brutal attack on Ukraine.
“The Democrats and Joe Biden in particular caused this invasion,” Cruz said of that exchange, accusing the Democrats of “ignoring the desperate pleas of Zelenskyy and Ukraine’s leaders.” Cruz voted for the $40 billion relief package, breaking with many of his conservative colleagues and spending nearly half an hour explaining his decision on the Senate floor this week.
And it’s not just McConnell: Other Republicans are actively rejecting the “America First” ideology that fueled much of the opposition to the latest Ukraine aid bill. Even senators close to Trump.
“Inflation is rampant, the border is broken, baby formula shortages — these are all real domestic problems,” Sen. Lindsay Graham (RSC) said. “But the last time we allowed a maniac to rewrite the map of Europe, it led to World War II. So, he learns from history. You have to do two things at once. Nothing gets better in America if Putin dismembers Ukraine and keeps marching through Europe.”