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As McConnell steps down, Ukraine loses a powerful GOP mega booster

As McConnell steps down, Ukraine loses a powerful GOP mega booster

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell‘s sudden announcement that he’ll step down from his post in November means that Republican leadership is poised to lose its most prominent Ukraine supporter.

McConnell has spent the past two years advocating for weapons and money to enable Kyiv to push back Russia’s invasion, urging lawmakers to pony up military aid while attacking President Joe Biden for not transferring weapons quickly enough. And the Kentucky Republican worked closely with Democratic leaders to pass a fresh tranche of aid through the Senate this month.

Last fall, McConnell was also an early proponent of pointing out the economic benefit of sending weapons to Ukraine, a talking point that the White House picked up later in October. On the Senate floor, McConnell noted that the money Congress approves doesn’t go to Ukraine, instead staying in the U.S. to be spent on replacement weapons being made by American defense companies — and creating jobs in several defense-heavy states.

“The security assistance money appropriated ‘for Ukraine’ isn’t just buying weapons for Ukraine,” McConnell said in a Sept. 13 floor speech. “It’s also replenishing and modernizing America’s arsenal. And the vast majority of it is going to American defense manufacturers.

“That’s tens of billions of dollars directly supporting tens of thousands of jobs in at least 38 states so far,” he said. “Support for Ukraine is driving historic investments in the communities we represent.”

While McConnell won’t be leaving the Senate, he won’t hold nearly as much sway as he does from his current perch. His support for Ukraine has been even more notable over the past year as Republicans have increasingly fractured over funding for Kyiv amid criticism from former President Donald Trump and prominent conservatives.

Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday on his plans to stand down, McConnell called U.S. world leadership more “essential” than ever, highlighting his efforts to clear a $95 billion emergency spending bill to aid Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel.

“I am unconflicted about the good within our country and the irreplaceable role we play as the leader of the free world,” he said, nodding to the increased fissures in the Republican conference on foreign policy.

“It is why I worked so hard to get the national security package passed earlier this month,” McConnell said. “Believe me, I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time. I have many faults, misunderstanding politics is not one of them.”

The latest effort to approve security assistance to Ukraine has proved contentious among Republicans. McConnell faced resistance in the ranks to an initial bipartisan deal to link border security measures with foreign aid funding, and most Republicans, including the minority leader, voted to block the measure.

A scaled-down package that included aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan without border provisions cleared the Senate with a bipartisan vote, though a majority of Republicans still voted against the bill.

Two senators expected to compete to succeed McConnell, Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and John Cornyn of Texas, voted for the package. A third expected candidate, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, opposed the final aid bill.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy singled out McConnell after the Senate passed its package this month.

“I am grateful to @SenSchumer, @LeaderMcConnell, and every US Senator who has supported continued assistance to Ukraine as we fight for freedom, democracy, and the values we all hold dear,” Zelenskyy posted on social media.

Support for Ukraine funding in the Senate GOP will shift at least somewhat with McConnell’s departure, argued Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), an opponent of aid for Kyiv.

“There’s gonna be at least a little bit of a shift because no matter who the leader is, they aren’t going to care as much about Ukraine as Mitch McConnell,” Vance said. “But look, I think that you have people in the conference who are broadly aligned with Mitch and people who broadly disagree, and I’m sure you’ll get sort of a mixture of us in the next leadership.”

McConnell’s hawkish stance on the Russia and Ukraine conflict has contrasted with House GOP leaders, first deposed Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his successor Mike Johnson, who have largely sidestepped the question of approving more aid amid conservative resistance.

During a private meeting Tuesday at the White House, McConnell pressed Johnson to hold a vote on the Senate-passed aid package, aligning with Biden and Democratic leaders.

“What I hope is that the House will take up the Senate bill and let the House work its way,” McConnell said at the time. “We don’t want the Russians to win in Ukraine. So, we have a time problem here. And I think the best way to move quickly and get the bill to the president would be for the House to take up the Senate bill and pass it.”

Joe Gould contributed to this report.

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