Thune says immigration, debt, Ukraine war funding challenge U.S. leadership

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-South Dakota, speaks at a news conference after a weekly policy luncheon with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol Building on Dec. 12, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Brad Johnson, South Dakota Searchlight

WATERTOWN — About 1.8 million of the estimated 9 million encounters at the southern U.S. border in the past three years are “people they call got-aways,” U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, told a gathering of Rotarians recently.

“In other words,” he said, “they didn’t catch them.”

But officials did apprehend 169 people who were on the terror watch list, he added.

Immigration was the first of several topics Thune addressed with the Rotary Club on March 28 in Watertown. Others included inflation, federal spending, political and societal polarization, green energy, war funding for Ukraine and his relationship with Donald Trump.

He said immigration is dominating political discourse.

“It’s a huge problem on the minds of people all across the country and all across South Dakota,” Thune said, noting how most Americans trace their ancestry to legal immigration.

“It is a reminder that inasmuch as we are a nation of immigrants, we are first and foremost a nation of laws, and we need to enforce our laws,” he said. “They are not being enforced today.”


Inflation is another major issue as the country moves into the presidential election season.

“Since President Biden took office,” Thune said, “the cumulative inflation has gone up 18.6%. That means about a thousand bucks a month to the average family of four.”

He said wages and income growth have not kept pace, while at the same time “this White House has great ideas on how to spend your money.”

Trump, leadership race

How the U.S. Senate deals with spending will change, Thune said, if he becomes the next majority leader should Republicans gain control and tap him for the job. He is competing against Sen. John Cornyn, of Texas, to replace Sen. Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who recently announced he will step down as the Republican Senate leader in November. Thune presently is Senate minority whip, his party’s number two position in the Senate.

It is unclear how that will square with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, who has criticized both Thune and Cornyn in the past.

Thune said he recently spoke with Trump, and the two had a good conversation. “I don’t know if in the end he gets involved in the leadership race or not,” Thune said. “But I think we have an understanding and a relationship that, if nothing else, is at least professional.”


Thune noted that Congress recently passed a package of legislation that “funded the government for last year.” Included in that package is $500 million for the Israeli Cooperative Missile Defense Program and $300 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.

Left unfinished was another bill with billions more to help Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion, as well as additional aid for Israel and Taiwan.

The Senate has approved $95 billion in aid (including $60 billion for Ukraine), but it’s stalled in the House, where it’s expected to be addressed this month.

Thune noted that $38 billion of that aid would help the U.S. rebuild its military with new weapons while older weapons are sent to Ukraine.

“America needs to provide leadership,” Thune said. “The world is a dangerous place. Right now, our choice with Ukraine is to send them weapons and let them fight their battles, which they are happy to do, and they’ve proven they have an enormous determination to win.”

The alternative, he said, is to “send them American sons and daughters, which is what will happen if Russia succeeds in Ukraine and goes next against a NATO ally such as one of the Baltics – Estonia, Lithuania, or Latvia or Poland,” triggering U.S. involvement.

“Then our men and women are in that fight,” he said.

Thune noted that the House is considering a version of military aid that would be more of a lend-lease program similar to World War II aid. That would provide cover for a Congress increasingly concerned about the national debt.

National debt

Thune said the U.S. government must face the burgeoning national debt in the near future.

“It is a time bomb,” he said. “It’s ticking and at some point, it is going to go off.”

Addressing runaway spending will require presidential leadership, and both President Joe Biden and Trump are avoiding the issue, Thune said.

“Members of Congress, especially House members who run every two years, are not going to walk out on that limb and have somebody saw it off behind them. So, you are never going to get members of Congress willing to make hard votes to deal with the debt absent a president who is willing to give them political cover.”

Other issues

Among other issues, Thune addressed:

  • The farm bill. The last farm bill expired at the end of September and Congress extended it for a year. “There are big differences of opinions between Republicans and Democrats about what the priorities ought to be in terms of funding allocations in the farm bill,” Thune said, adding there is a slim possibility it will be addressed sometime this summer, “but I’m not holding my breath on that.” Most likely, it will come up after the November election.
  • Electric cars and green energy. Thune said the Biden administration is trying to force people to change driving habits. “The idea that you are going to have two-thirds of America driving electric vehicles in eight years is unrealistic,” he said, noting it is impractical in weather- and distance-challenged states like South Dakota. This state is a leader in alternative energy with its hydroelectric power and renewable fuels, he said. “But the heavy hand of government — the mandates and everything that comes with it — has a very crushing effect on people.”
  • Political and social polarization. “The country is very divided right now and our politics reflects it,” Thune said. He noted that the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows unlimited independent expenditures on political campaigns has changed the political scene. Spending surpassed $100 million in five U.S. Senate races in 2022. “That has changed politics in a way that sometimes I think is hard to wrap your head around.” A major obstacle in all of the issues, he concluded, is that social media is driving people into their own information bubbles and “nobody is hearing what the other side is saying anymore.”