It was a day for a civics lesson.
In a rare 59-to-41 vote against President Donald Trump, a dozen Senate Republicans joined with the minority Democrats to deny the president emergency powers to fund his wall. The emergency move violates the Constitution, which gives Congress the power of the purse, these Republicans said.
They didn’t deny a crisis on the border, or even the need to build more wall. But they adamantly defended the unique role of Congress to appropriate funds.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee quoted the late conservative icon, Justice Antonin Scalia, that the “genius” of the Constitution is the “dispersal of power.” Sen. Jerry Moran, the Republican from Kansas, posted on Twitter his hand-written reasoning for bucking the president, including what everyone learned in high-school government class about the separate-but-equal branches.
Utah’s Republican Sen. Mike Lee said he’s sometimes accused of “naivete” and is told that the “School House Rock” song about how a bill becomes a law “works in theory” but is passe in such a vast and diverse nation. But the son of a former solicitor general, who argued cases before the Supreme Court on behalf of the Reagan White House, vigorously disagrees.
Over the decades, the Congress has ceded more and more power to the presidency, said Senator Lee. He worked with the White House this week on a legislative fix to the National Emergencies Act of 1976, which Mr. Trump insists gives him the power for his wall maneuver.
Other Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate agree with the president. The law needs reforming, admitted Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., likening it to “something my dog’s been keeping under the back porch.” But “the law is what the law is, not what it ought to be.”
Changing the emergencies law to have Congress approve future emergencies after 30 days – as Lee suggested – was seen as a way to bring wavering Republicans to the president’s side. But what president wants to give up power? Trump told Lee in a phone call he was not interested.
A dozen defections is seen as a significant rebuke to the president. Both the vice president and president personally pressured Republicans to avoid it, while messaging in unison that the vote was about border security – not the Constitution.
“They’re being beaten up right now,” Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky told reporters earlier this week. “If you see anybody that’s got blood dripping out of their ear, they may be changing” their mind, he laughed, even while affirming that he was a firm supporter of the resolution to revoke the president’s emergency declaration.
One of those bruised Republicans appears to have been Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who came out early against the emergency declaration. Conservative groups reportedly threatened to “primary” the senator because of his opposition. In the end, Senator Tillis turned and voted with the president.
While senators appeared to be schooling the president on civics today, he will have his own turn at the blackboard. He promises to veto their blocking of the national emergency declaration – the first veto of his administration.
Lawmakers will not have the two-thirds vote necessary to override his veto, and the whole matter is likely to be decided in the third branch of government, the courts.