Mitch McConnell, standing apart in a changing GOP, digs in on his decades-long push against Russia

Published 3:33 pm Friday, November 10, 2023

WASHINGTON (AP) — Mitch McConnell often tells the story of a letter that his father, a foot soldier in World War II, wrote to his mother while he was stationed in Eastern Europe in 1945, as the United States was liberating the region from Nazi rule.

“I think the Russians are going to be a big problem,” A.M. McConnell wrote, foreshadowing the communist takeover to come.

Almost 80 years later, his son is still warning of Russia. From his perch as the long-time Republican leader in the U.S. Senate, McConnell has emerged as perhaps the strongest advocate in Congress for sending billions of dollars in American assistance to Ukraine as the country fights Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, aligning himself with President Joe Biden and majority Democrats in the process.

It’s hardly a change in outlook for the Kentucky senator, who was first elected to the Senate in 1984 and was shaped by the era when President Ronald Reagan was fighting the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy was centered on the Soviet threat.

But while McConnell still thinks of himself as a Reagan Republican, many in his party no longer do.

As he faces the end of his fourth decade in the Senate, McConnell’s unwavering advocacy for Ukraine has set him apart from many of his GOP colleagues, many of whom are deeply skeptical or outright opposed to U.S. involvement abroad — particularly in Ukraine. It’s an increasingly prevalent view in the Republican Party, shaped under the influence of former President Donald Trump, who has railed against “forever wars” and praised Putin.

“Honestly, I think Ronald Reagan would turn over in his grave if he saw we were not going to help Ukraine,” McConnell said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. He called the Ukraine aid, which Biden has asked Congress to pass as part of a $105 billion request for Israel and other countries, a “no brainer.”

The Republican dissension has created a pivotal political moment, one that could forever shape the fate of Ukraine and the strength of American influence abroad. Stressing urgency, the White House has pushed Congress to approve the massive foreign aid package, which would also aid Israel in its war with Hamas and replenish American military stockpiles at home, by the end of the year.

But while earlier rounds of assistance passed Congress easily, the path for aiding Ukraine has grown perilous as the war enters its second brutal winter.

Almost more than any other issue, the debate over Ukraine divides the GOP along generational and ideological lines — especially as Trump is the leading candidate for the GOP nomination next year.

Cutting off assistance from Ukraine would be “a huge setback for the United States,” and the country’s reputation as the leader of the free world, McConnell said.

He sees the potential consequences as even bigger than the Biden administration’s chaotic and deadly 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The current moment is “a time of unique American vulnerability,” he said.

It is also a uniquely vulnerable moment for McConnell, who rarely ventures far from the views of his GOP conference. While his position is unequivocal on sending Ukraine more assistance, and several colleagues are behind him, many are hesitant to speak in strong terms about the need to keep Putin at bay.

Others are outright opposed to the aid, and they have begun to directly challenge the Republican leader’s support for it in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

“One of the things I worry about is we have leadership negotiating with the president,” said Ohio GOP Sen. J.D. Vance, who is in the first year of his term, of McConnell’s recent talks with the White House and the leader’s support for tying Ukraine and Israel aid together. “I want to make sure that leadership is actually being representative of the views of the conference.”

Vance, who has pushed to separate the aid for the two countries, says his views are closer to new House Speaker Mike Johnson and Republicans in the House, which passed legislation last week that would aid Israel but not Ukraine. Vance argues the United States does not have enough of a plan for winning the Ukraine war.

“I think the fact that Speaker Johnson has a little bit more agency is in part because he is the Speaker of the House,” Vance says. “But it’s also important because he has a membership that is much, much more in tune with where Republican voters actually are.”

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who has also criticized the Ukraine aid, said that “nationally, the Republican leader right now is the speaker of the House of Representatives.”

“We need to support his efforts, we need to understand the challenges he faces, and certainly not undermine him,” Johnson said.

The Republican schism in the Senate was most pronounced on Sept, 30, as the House and Senate scrambled in a rare Saturday session to keep the government open before funding expired at midnight on Oct. 1. McConnell was insistent that short-term aid to Ukraine would have to be in the deal, but relented when several of his colleagues, even some of those who were like-minded, endorsed a House plan that would not include it.

McConnell walked out of a private conference meeting and declared that the Republicans would vote against advancing a bipartisan Senate bill that included the aid — a rare public reversal for the leader. His move made the House bill the only funding option left, and it easily passed the Senate. The government stayed open but the Ukraine aid was left unresolved.

McConnell downplays the decision, arguing that “the most important thing at that particular moment was to avoid a government shutdown. The rest of it was sort of incidental.”

The development also wasn’t unexpected. A week before the government funding deadline, McConnell told Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, on a call that it “would be impossible” for Congress to pass the full package with Ukraine money included, according to a person familiar with the situation who granted anonymity to discuss it.

Republicans supportive of the aid have laid blame for the delay generally on Biden and congressional Democrats, saying that they need to articulate the importance of helping Ukraine and provide a detailed plan.

As he continues to push for the aid, McConnell’s style is not to strong-arm his colleagues, or the Republican-led House. He has spoken with new Speaker Johnson, but he said he just repeated to him what he has said publicly about Ukraine for months. “That’s not my job” to convince others, he said.

Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, a McConnell ally who has spoken out in favor of the Ukraine aid, says he thinks McConnell has managed to stem his losses so far.

“There’s a number of us who feel strong and certain about the rightness of this cause, others are more persuadable,” Moran said. “And I think the leader has done a really good job of keeping the two sets of senators together.”

One way McConnell is managing the challenge is by endorsing a push from GOP senators to include border policy in the aid package for Israel and Ukraine — a gambit that introduces difficult immigration issues and could threaten its ultimate passage, but appears essential to winning Republican support. Bipartisan talks are underway to try and find consensus around changes on that issue.

McConnell has also drawn from the lessons of history, emphasizing the connections between the two wars as he urges an unflinching defense of democracy and the West.

After the Cold War ended, McConnell often says, the U.S. focused more on terrorism, partially through two wars in Iraq. As China has emerged as an adversary and Russia has re-emerged, and Israel is now at war with Hamas, “what we have now is both — both the terrorism issue and the big power competition issue all at the same time, which is why I think singling out one of these problems to the exclusion of the others is a mistake.”

Failing to pass the aid would be “a disaster for Ukraine and disaster for us,” McConnell said. He questions what has happened to the belief in America’s global leadership.

“For myself, I’m still a Reagan Republican,” McConnell said. “And I think that’s the best path for us in the future. But look, in our democracy, the voters make that decision.”