How McConnell and Schumer became Ukraine-aid allies

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Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer began their relationship as Senate leaders on a deeply toxic note as Donald Trump took office, clashing bitterly over an open Supreme Court seat. Seven years later, when it comes to the volatile topic of Ukraine aid, they’re acting like partners.

The monthslong push to get Ukraine money through the Senate could have easily ended in a stalemate and a familiar round of finger pointing and blame-shifting between McConnell and Schumer. In the end, despite Trump’s lobbying to kill it and the implosion of a bipartisan border deal originally designed to boost its GOP support, the $95 billion foreign aid package passed with more votes than it won during the initial floor fight.

Of course, McConnell and Schumer are still battling fiercely for the Senate majority next year, each reveling in the opposing party’s missteps. And their alignment to help steer Ukraine assistance past a Trump-juiced wall of conservative opposition is a largely temporary phenomenon, and no one should expect it to continue when the next high court seat opens or when Trump-era tax cuts expire next year.

And yet, the two longtime rivals’ willingness to put their past acrimony aside amounted to a remarkable sign that, while the House devolves into ever-harsher partisanship, the Senate’s two leaders see themselves as something of a beacon of stability in a tumultuous Washington. Schumer even joked as much two weeks ago at a formal dinner with much of official Washington, riffing off his fellow Brooklynite Jay-Z, that he had “99 problems, but Mitch ain’t one."

“We changed the rules of the Senate without Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell having a personal conversation,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who was intimately involved in the monthslong Ukraine fight. “Here, I think they were speaking nearly every day. And when we were going back and forth in the discussions, they had an idea about what purpose we're all trying to serve.”

Serving that purpose came with a serious cost, particularly for McConnell. Days before his 82nd birthday, the GOP leader continues to take political body blows from his critics as he diverges from House Speaker Mike Johnson — who, unlike McConnell, is vocally pro-Trump. The more that Trump and others on the right prioritize squashing Ukraine aid, the greater the challenge to McConnell. As is clear to anyone in Congress, aiding Ukraine is his top priority.

Which makes it all the more revealing that McConnell has benefited from the uncharacteristic patience of Schumer. It couldn’t have happened without McConnell’s willingness to keep his distance from Trump. It’s also a 180-degree turn from the 2017 Supreme Court battle that served as their opening act together, when Schumer mounted a filibuster that led McConnell to change Senate rules.

“It’s been a pretty rare thing,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). “We ought to see this from leaders more often.”

CONSTANT COORDINATION

The Ukraine debate might serve as a capstone to a post-Trump thaw between McConnell and Schumer, who ended up collaborating on a series of bipartisan bills during President Joe Biden’s first two years in office. McConnell didn’t do that out of charity: He wanted to save the legislative filibuster and knew blocking everything risked hastening its demise.

But Ukraine was different — a last stand from the party’s Reagan wing as Trump’s grip on the GOP tightens. And with a Democratic president in office, Schumer and his party prioritized the fight against the Russians in a strikingly hawkish manner.

In separate interviews this week, Schumer and McConnell gave each other careful praise. McConnell said that “on this particular issue, which is unusual, we’re generally in agreement.” Schumer barely deviated from that sentiment:

Behind the scenes, though, the process revealed how closely they coordinated on an effort that appeared near-collapse every few days. Sometimes they chatted in conspicuous one-on-one office meetings, other times in just a few quiet words on the Senate floor. McConnell had to manage growing resistance within his own ranks, while Schumer had to handle Democrats who don’t trust the GOP leader.

McConnell insisted that Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a fastidious conservative, be the GOP’s lead border negotiator, which Schumer took issue with: "I went to him and said, ‘Lankford is not a good negotiator.’ He would never take Lankford out of it," the Democrat recalled.

Ultimately, Trump’s pull proved stronger than Lankford’s. But the Sooner stuck with a deal that most of his party abandoned.

It was a telltale sign of shifting fates for the two leaders. Schumer has faced scrutiny for his management of the Democratic caucus over the years, but today the heat is mostly on his counterpart. McConnell’s conservative critics have latched onto his work with Schumer, which Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) deemed part of an "unholy alliance.”

While McConnell worked to defuse the intraparty tension, Schumer gave McConnell broad leeway to let months of border negotiations play out. He had no other option, effectively; working with McConnell was the only way to get a Ukraine bill through the Senate. And they needed a big vote total on the GOP side to boot.

After trying unsuccessfully to keep Ukraine money in last fall’s spending bill, McConnell told Schumer in October that they needed to add the border to the massive foreign aid bill to have any prayer of success. As McConnell saw it, his conference needed strict immigration changes as cover to support Ukraine, which has grown increasingly unpopular among the Trump-aligned wing of the Republican Party.

GOP WARMS TO DEAL — BEFORE TRUMP SPEAKS

McConnell and Schumer agreed early on to keep Ukraine funding packaged with Israel and Taiwan aid. Most senators thought the matter would be resolved well before Trump reclaimed his command over the congressional GOP.

That proved incorrect, and it wasn't until December that the Biden administration fully engaged with the Senate negotiators. Months of negotiations followed, producing a bill that would have tightened the asylum standard, limited presidential use of parole authority and shut down the border at times of high migrant flows. It was a relatively conservative deal — one that looked like a hard sell for Schumer’s Democrats, who spent the last decade demanding a path to citizenship for some migrants as the cost for stricter border security.

Schumer recalled that when negotiators showed their agreement to some Senate Republicans, they were surprised that Democrats were prepared to accept something so right-leaning.

“McConnell thought he might get the 15, 16 votes he needed," Schumer said in the interview. But he remembered, even then, asking McConnell what would happen if Trump publicly opposed the border plan. McConnell's reply, in Schumer's memory: "‘I'm not sure it could survive.’”

Those words were prophetic: Trump’s pushback toppled the carefully constructed border deal.

Republican senators, privately, were already indicating leeriness about any deal that Democrats could pass and tout during an election year.

“The conference kept changing positions on what it wanted to do on the border,” McConnell said of his members. “That's what prolonged the situation.”

DEMOCRATIC HAWKS ROOST

As negotiations wound on and members got antsy, Schumer deputized several Democratic “Ukraine hawks," including Bennet, to nudge Republicans.

The normally reserved Bennet had threatened a government shutdown in September over the lack of Ukraine aid attached to government spending legislation. He and the other Ukraine hawks pushed Schumer and McConnell to issue joint statements in support of Ukraine — markers that even when the Senate failed to reach an agreement, the leaders were not giving up.

Those hawks eventually had their own meeting with McConnell in his office. Like many Democrats, Bennet has complained that McConnell often got the better of Democrats in the toughest conflicts of the day.

Yet during that meeting, Bennet said, McConnell seemed to be ignoring the politics of the day inside the Senate GOP: “He made it very clear that he was committed to doing everything he could do,” Bennet said in an interview.

“When we were with President Zelenskyy in the old Senate chamber, he said: ‘I'm with you,'" recalled Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), another member of the hawks.

After finally getting 70 votes for a $95 billion aid package, including $60 billion for Ukraine, the two leaders now must work together to force the House to move — a task that could prove impossible. Still, they appear mutually aware that it would have proven impossible to get this far without legitimate trust.

That doesn't mean they'll stop fighting for an advantage in the battle for the majority. Just ask Schumer about the price McConnell's GOP might pay for rejecting that border deal.

“We were playing chess, they were playing checkers, and we ended up with a Ukraine bill,” Schumer said. “We also end up in much better shape on the border than we were three months ago.”

Ursula Perano contributed to this report.