(Bloomberg) -- A stonefaced Mitch McConnell walked onto the Senate floor on Sunday to push back against isolationists in his party, mere hours after Donald Trump cast serious doubt on the strength of US alliances. 

The veteran Republican Senate leader has become the last serious bulwark within the party against Trump populists’ animosity toward US international commitments, even as the increasingly frail McConnell’s influence has waned sharply in the last year.

McConnell has steered clear of Trump for years and on Sunday wouldn’t address the Republican presidential front-runner’s comments at a Saturday campaign rally that he’d encourage Russia to invade NATO members who hadn’t met defense-spending commitments.

Slowed by age but unbowed in his determination, the white-haired Kentuckian embodies the party’s old order and its Ronald Reagan-inspired commitment to standing strong in global strategic competition, promoting free markets and allying with the interests of American business.

McConnell’s Sunday remarks, an endorsement of swift Senate approval of aid to Ukraine and the importance of US alliances, laid bare the global risks of Republicans’ embrace of isolationism.

“Our partners don’t have the luxury of pretending that the world’s most dangerous aggressors are somebody else’s problem, and neither do we,” McConnell said. 

Public Defeat

McConnell spent four months nurturing a bipartisan US border deal to appease conservatives who wanted to tie action on migration to Ukraine aid. The compromise collapsed in less than 24 hours last week under criticism from Trump. 

He quickly pivoted to a $95 billion package for Ukraine, Israel and other national security priorities and rallied a third of his party behind him. 

That’s enough to get the legislation through the Senate but hardly a resounding political success for a man once so feared by adversaries he dubbed himself the “Grim Reaper.” 

The measure faces an uphill fight in the House, where Republican leaders demand a partisan border bill first. Even if the House does ultimately pass the bill, months have been lost while Ukraine’s war supplies dwindle and Russia gains ground in a fresh offensive.

Senate Fixture

McConnell, 81, a fixture in the Senate since 1985 and the chamber’s longest-serving party leader in history, has led Senate Republicans for more than 17 years, a period in which his GOP counterparts in the House changed leaders three times. 

He secured a series of generational wins, including a crucial role in the rightward shift of the judiciary that ended federal abortion rights, and numerous tax cuts. 

His power has been underpinned by a political shrewdness that inspired confidence in donors and Senate colleagues, allowing him to fund and build a political machine that helped elect allies. McConnell’s campaign skills were on display again Friday, as he logged a recruiting victory: Maryland’s popular former governor, Larry Hogan announced a run for the Senate.

New Order

That guile has included an ability to look around corners to anticipate where Senate Republicans would need to be, or want to be, said former Republican Senator Rob Portman, a McConnell ally.

“Mitch is a very savvy leader and part of leading is having a sense of where your caucus is and staying ahead of the parade,” Portman said. 

But the parade is increasingly peeling away. 

This past week Republicans shouted at each other in party lunches in disputes over McConnell’s strategies, while hardliners including Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah called for new leadership.  

McConnell has also faced health challenges, including a fall and concussion last year and two freezing episodes at news conferences. He is noticeably slower in his movement and his speech. That has accelerated the behind-the-scenes maneuvering by potential successors.

Ukraine Push

McConnell has spent more than a year trying to best Trump’s isolationist allies on Ukraine, making near-daily speeches advocating more aid for Kyiv.

He often speaks of his father’s experience serving in General George Patton’s army in World II, a conflict that turned many Americans against the appeasement policies that allowed Adolf Hitler’s early aggression to go unchallenged and which McConnell says inspired his father to warn the family of the danger Russia posed.

For McConnell, the benefits of helping Ukraine defend itself are obvious and manifold — from curbing Vladimir Putin’s broader ambitions to rebuilding the US military manufacturing base and deterring China and other adversaries.

Last week, he praised James Lankford, the Oklahoma Republican who undertook the thankless task of negotiating the deal on border enforcement. 

Conservatives had demanded Congress tie Ukraine funding to action to address a surge in migration, and Lankford achieved a compromise endorsed by the Border Patrol union, which twice backed Trump for president. 

That didn’t stop McConnell from abandoning the border deal after Trump denounced it. Even so, his opponents were immediately emboldened.

Cruz blamed McConnell for Republicans’ poor performance in mid-term elections and argued his legislative strategy ceded too much to Democrats.

But other Republicans, including McConnell critic JD Vance of Ohio, an opponent of Ukraine aid and a close ally of Trump, don’t expect the Senate to follow the example of fractious House Republicans and oust a leader before the end of his term.

“I suspect that we have the leadership that we’re gonna have for the next 10 months,” Vance said.

McConnell and his allies also point out critics failed to unseat him after the 2022 midterms, when 10 Republicans backed a challenge by Florida Republican Rick Scott, and there is little sign that number has grown, despite vocal splits on Ukraine and legislative strategy. 

McConnell won’t say whether he’ll run again for party leader. But there’s a continuing tension between his talent for anticipating the party’s direction and his sense of the strategic importance of the moment in Ukraine.

“He’s letting Republicans know it’s OK to be supportive of the Ronald Reagan ‘peace through strength’ and the US projection of force for the cause of freedom,” Portman said. “He’s bucking the newer trend.”

Only the newer trend also can buck McConnell.

--With assistance from Christian Hall and Erik Wasson.

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