EXCLUSIVE: GOP Civil War Deepens As Senators Claim McConnell Threw Party’s Voters ‘Under The Bus’ On Ukraine, Border

PHOTO CREDITS/ Getty image credits/ Ron Johnson/ Anna Moneymaker Rick Scott/ Anna Moneymaker Mike Lee/ Pool

Henry Rodgers Chief National Correspondent
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and pro-Ukraine hawks within his conference gave away their leverage by voting to send billions more in aid to Ukraine despite not reaching a border security deal, several Republican senators who are increasingly frustrated with party leadership told the Daily Caller.

Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee and Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott all unloaded on McConnell in interviews with the Daily Caller and shared their gratitude for Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, who said any Ukraine aid without border provisions will be “dead on arrival” in the House. Johnson’s comments came just two days after the Caller first published leaked border deal proposals.

“I cannot even believe how badly McConnell blew this,” Johnson told the Caller. “McConnell frittered away the leverage we have in the Senate.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) questions U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, September 14, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“It is challenging to negotiate for border security from a position of strength when too many legislators share the Democrats’ conviction that defending Ukraine is more important than defending America,” Lee said. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: Senate Republicans Sound Off On Leaked Border Deal Proposals, Say They Will Absolutely Not Vote For Them)

Republicans in both chambers of Congress had spoken for months about a push to extract compromise from Democrats — who, led by President Joe Biden, have made a key priority out of aid for Ukraine — by tying further support for Kyiv to concessions on immigration policy to address the ongoing crisis at the southern border.

When push came to shove, Republicans didn’t get their end of the deal. The bipartisan Senate border and foreign aid bill negotiated by Republican leadership and Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford didn’t even survive to a full vote after vast public backlash and opposition from former President Donald Trump.

Democrats did end up getting their side of the deal passed though, with the help of 22 Republican senators who voted to pass nearly $100 billion in military aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan last week, despite failing to reach a border deal.

Rachel Bovard, the Vice President of Programs at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), said Republicans will never get an effective border deal if they are not willing to walk away from the table.

“As long as enough Republicans are prepared to vote for the final product no matter what, they will never be able to cut a deal for policies that actually solve the border crisis,” Bovard told the Caller.

“It certainly doesn’t seem that Senate Republican leaders were that serious about the Ukraine/border tradeoff. Sen. Rick Scott has said publicly that McConnell took the idea of tying Ukraine funding to border enforcement off the table. Sen. Thom Tillis said he wouldn’t support a bill that didn’t have support from the majority of the GOP conference, and then he did exactly that. And Sen. Mitt Romney gave away the game when, on the Senate floor, he called the Ukraine aid vote – without a border deal attached to it — ‘the most important vote senators will ever take,’” she continued.

The bill faces an uphill climb to passage in the House due to Speaker Johnson’s opposition. But Senate Republicans seem to have lost their leverage on a possible border solution for the time being, depending on what ultimately happens to Ukraine aid in the House.

“The reason so many of us are speaking out the way we are against McConnell was the way he blew this. It’s historic. It was a monumental blunder, debacle. We don’t appreciate it. But again, the good news is, if the house doesn’t pass this, we still have that leverage,” Sen. Johnson said. “Of the many components of this blunder, maybe the most important was not recognizing that your negotiating partner was not negotiating in good faith … [all] Democrats wanted was political cover, and McConnell gave it to them. Again, this is historic in nature. What Senate leader from either party has done so much to give their political opponent the kind of political cover, that McConnell just handed over to the Democrats on a silver platter. It’s just it’s jaw-dropping.”

“It is clear that Senate GOP leadership did not begin border negotiations by seeking victory— they wanted a sop to throw conservatives so they could pass their real priority, which was Ukraine funding. And so, we were presented with a bill that wouldn’t do what Republicans demanded — forcing the Biden administration to achieve operational control of the border,” Lee said.

Republican leadership’s alleged prioritization of Ukraine over the southern border could come back to haunt them with voters, if polls are to be believed. Immigration consistently rates as a top issue for all Americans, especially Republicans — the same can’t be said for additional aid to Ukraine.

“[Ukraine] does not register. It is not something they think about … I would tell you right now, it’s probably up there with, I wanna say it ranked just above climate change, and climate change was really low,” Republican pollster and founder of the Trafalgar Group, Robert Cahaly, said of where Ukraine ranks among priorities for 2024 voters.

“All these wars and everything is a big deal, taken as a whole, that stuff is ranking. But Ukraine alone is not. It’s kind of this idea of American weakness around the world.”

Lee said a frustrated electorate could be what saves Republican senators from themselves, along with opposition in the House: “The two most effective tools we have moving forward are a GOP House majority that will actually fight for our priorities, and a very angry electorate who are tired of being thrown under the bus by their supposedly Republican elected officials.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah., speaks during the news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday, July 20, 2021, to announce legislation which would require the president to consult with congressional leaders and obtain congressional authorization before exercising certain national security powers. (Photo by Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Scott, who is the most recent Republican to run against McConnell for his leadership position, said McConnell should expect blowback for trying to push that priority across the finish line without securing the border.

“I talked to Mike Johnson quite a bit. And I’ve talked to a lot of House members and there’s no appetite for what we passed. And and you know what I don’t get? I’m a business guy, and I bought and financed a lot of businesses, right? I never got a deal done without talking to people,” he said. “There was no conversation about how this would pass the house. Zero. Mike Johnson was clear. This is dead on arrival. And so that’s why I never understood why we were trying to pass something that clearly could not pass the house.”

“I mean, people are mad. I mean you don’t realize when I travel Florida, how much Mitch McConnell is disliked. Because the guy’s helping all these Democrats with their issues. And, you know, we get hurt. Well, you know, the way they did it, by immediately going forward with a bill that does not have border provisions, it doesn’t look like they cared,” Scott continued.

Rick Scott (R-FL) speaks to reporters on his way to a classified all-Senate briefing on Artificial Intelligence at the U.S. Capitol on July 11, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Caller contacted the offices of all 22 Senate Republicans who voted to send $95 billion in military aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, without any border provisions. None would answer specific questions about whether GOP leadership was ever serious about a Ukraine/border tradeoff, given they immediately voted to fund aid for Ukraine after the border deal collapsed.

Some of the Senate Republicans who voted for Ukraine aid have failed to attempt to make the case to their skeptical base for why it is necessary. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney simply said that the vote would be among the most important the Senate ever takes up. North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis implied that senators know better than voters, who can’t possibly understand as well as the lawmakers why aid to Ukraine is necessary.

That failure to make the case is a problem, Cahaly said.

“Tell us what victory looks like. Tell us what the goal is. People are tired of America just kind of playing the game with no end in sight,” he said. “That starts to feel like Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam. People don’t like that.”

McConnell’s disconnect with Republican voters has long been a point of focus for his critics. Sen. Johnson said he is “highly disappointed” with the 22 Republicans who ended up voting for more Ukraine aid without border provisions, saying “we’ve had a leader whose top priority was providing $60 billion in funding for Ukraine. And you’ll have to ask him why he thinks that’s more important than securing our own homeland.”

Johnson added that one underreported element is how quickly McConnell “turned on his own bill” after he and his staff helped craft the legislation. Once McConnell saw the blowback from other GOP Senators, including Johnson and an angry electorate, he altered course and told Republicans to not vote for the very bill he negotiated.

“The bill he wrote, was such a monumental failure. It wasn’t people like me, that were asking legitimate questions about it, that tanked that bill, that bill tanked itself, so bad that not only did McConnell vote against it, he urged Republican colleagues to vote against it. It’s just jaw-dropping,” Johnson told the Caller. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: ‘This Is Our Opportunity’ — Top GOP Senators Game McConnell’s Ouster After Botched Border Deal)

Some Republicans have also criticized their own leader for providing political cover for Democrats. Biden and his allies quickly pivoted to blaming Republicans for the porous state of the border after the Senate deal collapsed, falsely claiming that Congress had failed to give the president the authority to fix the problem.

“Every single Democrat candidate in the country running for Senate, running for House will use the identical talking points — they will all say: We wanted to secure the border. We tried to secure the border, but the Republicans wouldn’t let us,” Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz previously told the Caller. “Now, that is a wild-eyed lie. It is completely false. This bill would have made the border crisis worse.”

Pollsters like Cahaly said they don’t anticipate the gambit will work, however: “The public knew it wasn’t real, they weren’t buying into all that,” he said. “The guy who’s gonna pay the real price for immigration is Biden, because nobody thinks it’s not his fault. There’s a lot of fault to go around, but nobody thinks it ain’t Biden’s fault.”

Republican pollster Robert Blizzard agreed, with the caveat that Republican senators who are up for re-election in 2026 may need to be careful if they continue to prioritize Ukraine over the border.

“Going into future election cycles, I don’t know, it just depends on what happens over the next two years, maybe folks who are up in ’26 may need to be careful,” he said.

Ultimately the wrath of the voters has been felt the most by McConnell, Lee implied, and it could be his undoing.

“When Republican legislators and millions of constituents rejected that bill, they turned around and proceeded with Ukraine funding anyway,” he said. “The bright side is that over half of our conference refused to go along with this charade. Senate Republicans deserve real leadership—not simply two Democrats—and more of my colleagues are realizing this.”

The Caller contacted McConnell’s office about the criticism from GOP Senators and others, to which they refused to comment.


Dylan Housman contributed to this report.