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The Senate GOP ends up exactly where it started on foreign aid

Three months ago, most Senate Republicans were resolute: No way in heck were they sending money to Ukraine without simultaneously securing the border. Yet on Thursday, 17 of them advanced a bill that would do just that.

It’s a head-snapping reversal that has many Republicans reconsidering the negotiating tactics they took just a few months ago. The Senate GOP went through a months-long circle of denying straightforward foreign aid legislation, asking for a border bill, negotiating one, rejecting it and now wanting border amendments on a package that looks a lot like the first one. In the interim, Russia has continued pounding Ukraine and killing people while Israel’s war with Hamas continues unabated.

One Senate Republican, granted anonymity to discuss the matter, said that some Republicans thought adding border security would eventually help them get Ukraine assistance past conservative opposition. But there was a major flaw in the plan: They didn’t realize Trump would move to kill it.

“We’d have been smarter to do it four to five months ago. But we Republicans insisted on a border bill to be part of the deal. We could have saved a lot of time if President Trump had just told Fox and others he didn’t want the bill,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “It’s just unfortunate that aid that’s so desperately needed in Ukraine and Israel has been held up while we go through our politics.”

There’s always been a strong contingent of pro-Ukraine Republicans in the Senate, but the solidification of Trump’s presidential bid over the past few months seems to have tamped those numbers down. Simultaneously, the ouster of Kevin McCarthy and the installation of new Speaker Mike Johnson made the path to passage in the House exponentially tougher.

In short, that wasted time mattered politically. What once could have passed both chambers of Congress last fall now looks increasingly impossible.

“The Republicans did a very effective job of reminding people around the country we have a crisis at the border. So we did well with the messaging — until…” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska.), pointedly trailing off. “And right now we’ve got nothing but message.”

And it came at the cost of progress on other legislation, namely bills to fund the government.

“I have said from the beginning, that I don’t understand why Sen. Schumer didn’t immediately keep bringing appropriations bills to the floor,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member on the Appropriations Committee. “I think we could have gotten all of them across the Senate floor.”

Still, other Republicans didn’t want to discuss the internal debacle. Asked why the Senate didn’t just start passing this bill months ago, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) replied: “I don’t think that’s a fair question.”

The tension flared up on the Senate floor on Thursday afternoon, as Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) questioned why Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) voted to block consideration of the border deal the day before if he wanted border amendment votes on the more straightforward package. Graham responded that the “fix is in” and that Senate leaders gave the game away by immediately pivoting to a borderless national security supplemental.

“It would have been helpful to sit down and see if we could improve the bill. Spend some time, give people a chance to vent, slow things down. Not just jump into Ukraine,” Graham said in an interview, referring to the border legislation. “Leadership on both sides seems to think that we’ve done enough on the border. They’re gonna be surprised. We’ve lost votes on our side.”

Now, pro-Ukraine Republicans are in a tough spot: moving forward with a deal without border security and bracing for intraparty criticism. History could easily repeat itself: Trump could turn on them and try to further scuttle the deal.

And conservative senators are already prepared to continue the circular attacks.

“The Republican base of conservative voters wants to control our southern border, number one. And, number two, doesn’t want us to give up on the southern border and immediately ship $100 billion overseas. So I relish the fact of these people going home and talking to regular people at home. It’s incredibly unpopular,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is aiming to delay the foreign aid package as long as he can.

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