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In vote blocking Trump’s ‘emergency,’ GOP principles collide

Why We Wrote This

Why are so many Republican senators dithering over support for President Trump’s emergency declaration? It’s a case of competing conservative priorities (border security versus upholding the Constitution) and the 2020 elections.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska arrived for the weekly Republican Party caucus luncheon at the Capitol in Washington Feb. 26. A number of Republicans in both houses of Congress have shown a willingness to split with President Trump over his national emergency declaration.

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President Trump got another taste of divided government Tuesday, as the Democratically controlled House of Representatives passed a resolution to block his declaration of a national emergency along the southern border. The measure now moves to the Senate, where it will require only a simple majority – the equivalent of four Republican defections – to be sent to the White House for the president’s inevitable veto.

Forcing Mr. Trump to use his veto pen for the first time in his presidency would represent a show of force from newly empowered Democrats. The resolution is marked as privileged under the National Emergencies Act. That means Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky will have 18 days to put a vote on the floor that will force his members to choose either to protect Congress’s spending authority as a co-equal branch of government, or show their support for the president.

“There’s a real tension here,” says Whit Ayres, a longtime GOP pollster, whose clients include Sens. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida and Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee. “Many of my Senate clients feel that tension, and I suspect they will resolve it in different ways.”

President Trump got another taste of divided government Tuesday, as the Democratically controlled House of Representatives passed a resolution blocking his declaration of a national emergency along the southern border.

The measure now moves to the Senate, where it will require only a simple majority – the equivalent of four Republican defections – to be sent to the White House for the president’s inevitable veto.

Forcing Mr. Trump to use his veto pen for the first time in his presidency would represent a show of force from newly empowered Democrats. The resolution is marked as privileged under the National Emergencies Act. That means Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky will have 18 days to put a vote on the floor that will force his members to publicly choose either to protect Congress’s spending authority as a co-equal branch of government, or show their support for the president and his goal of securing the border.

“There’s a real tension here,” says Whit Ayres, a longtime GOP pollster, whose clients include Sens. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida and Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee. “We’ve never had, to my knowledge, a president ask Congress to appropriate money for something, Congress has refused, and the president has declared an emergency to get around a decision of Congress.”

Trump declared a national emergency after Congress – constitutionally entrusted with the power of the purse – passed a bipartisan spending bill last month that fell far short of his demand for $5.7 billion for a wall along the border with Mexico. An emergency declaration could free up billions in funding from other departments to pay for the project.

To some observers, what’s most striking is how reluctant Republicans have been to oppose the president on this issue.

It’s no accident that Trump never got the funding he wanted for his wall, even under a unified Congress, says Frances Lee, a professor of politics at the University of Maryland. There wasn’t much enthusiasm for it among congressional Republicans in the 115th Congress, and they didn’t mind punting the confrontation over the issue to the end of the session – when the Senate ended up approving a fraction of the funding Trump had asked for.

“That, to me, tells you something about Republicans’ view of that request,” she says.

Even some of those who support the construction of a border wall are uncomfortable with the president sidestepping Congress to secure funding for it. More than a dozen Senate Republicans have publicly expressed concerns over the emergency declaration, with at least eight calling it a threat to the separation of powers among branches of government.

Nearly two dozen former Republican lawmakers signed an open letter urging their colleagues in Congress to block the president’s move.

Yet so far only three GOP senators – Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina – have said they’d support the resolution.

“Even if they pass it through the Senate, it’s mostly on the strength of Democratic votes,” Professor Lee says. “It’s the strength President Trump has, and his hold over Republican Party voters, that holds [these members] in line, despite their policy objections.”

Foreign-policy defiance

Still, under unified Republican leadership, Congress did vote to check the president on several occasions – most often on matters of foreign policy.

In June 2017, the Senate voted overwhelmingly for a Russia sanctions bill that made it harder for the Trump administration to roll back penalties against the Kremlin.

The Senate also defied the president last December, with a bipartisan vote to end military support for the war in Yemen and to blame the Saudi crown prince for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. At the time, House Republicans refused to take up the bill – but under Democratic control, the House passed a similar bill earlier this month.

When Trump declared victory over the Islamic State and ordered the withdrawal of troops in Syria and Afghanistan, the Senate passed a bill strongly opposing the move.

Mr. Ayres, the pollster, says those unusual rebukes were only possible because the president’s position was so far off from most of his party’s. The national emergency declaration, on the other hand, highlights competing priorities within the Republican Party: enhancing border security, and upholding the Constitution and the separation of powers.

“I have been concerned whenever any president – Republican or Democrat – moves beyond what I think most would consider to be their authorities,” Senator Murkowski told reporters Tuesday. Trump, she said, “is overstepping into the legislative prerogative.”

At their weekly lunch on Tuesday, Republicans engaged in a vigorous discussion about the president’s emergency declaration, with Vice President Mike Pence making the case that the declaration is sound on a statutory and factual basis.

Sen. John Kennedy (R) of Louisiana, who supports the president’s position, told reporters that many of his GOP colleagues are wrestling with the issue. “We love the Constitution,” said the senator. Yet “no fair-minded person believes that we don’t have a serious, serious problem – I would call it a ‘crisis’ – at the border,” he said.

“At this point, I think the president is on pretty good legal grounds for using the funds,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R) of South Dakota. “I lean in supporting him on this,” he said, but added, “I am concerned what the repercussions may be in the future.”

Influence over GOP core

Complicating matters is Trump’s overwhelming influence over core Republican voters. Twenty-two Senate Republicans are up for reelection in 2020, and few are willing to risk losing that base of support. Among them is Senator McConnell, who was among the first to try to discourage the president from declaring an emergency – and among the first to say he would vote against blocking the move.

Indeed, the Republican lawmakers most vocally against Trump on this issue appear to be those whose constituencies are not as closely aligned with the president. Senators Collins and Tillis, for example, are up for reelection in states that can look more purple than red. 

Still, some say the principles at stake are larger than mere electoral concerns.

“This is a vote that will be remembered because of its constitutional implications and its separation of powers implications,” says Ayres. “You’re not just voting for the next election, you’re voting in many ways for your historical record.”

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