WASHINGTON – In a major rebuke to President Donald Trump on his signature domestic policy issue, the Republican-controlled Senate on Thursday voted to block the national emergency the president declared to free up money for his border wall.
A dozen Republicans joined all Democrats backing a resolution to rescind Trump’s effort to tap into more than $6 billion for the wall that had been set aside for other programs, most of them at the Pentagon.
Trump vowed to use his veto power for the first time to kill the resolution, which passed the House 245-182 last month. There’s not likely enough opposition to override that veto. But the Senate vote was nevertheless a significant political setback for the White House, which had lobbied hard in recent days to keep Republicans in line.
Republican senators such as Utah’s Mitt Romney and Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander said they supported Trump’s desire to build the wall. But they did not want to set a precedent of the president going around Congress for funding lawmakers had rejected.
Congress had sent Trump $1.375 billion for the wall this year, far less than what he wanted.
“Our nation’s founders gave to Congress the power to approve all spending so that the president would not have too much power,” Alexander said. “This check on the executive is a crucial source of our freedom.”
In addition to the political symbolism, the vote could also help opponents challenging Trump’s move in court. Several lawsuits, including one filed Democratic state attorneys general, are another reason some senators wanted Trump to find another path.
“I know the president has the votes to pursue his approach,” Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said shortly before the vote. “But I continue to hope the president uses the funds he has available to him without creating a bad precedent, having some of the needed funds tied up in the courts and taking money from important military projects.”
The political symbolism of Republicans breaking with Trump on his signature domestic issue is enormous. The rebuke puts on display a wedge within the GOP that Democrats are certain to exploit heading into the 2020 election. Many Republican senators noted that they openly criticized President Barack Obama’s use of executive authority, and felt they had to apply that principle consistently to Trump.
White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, scrambled behind the scenes to limit defections. And Trump even signaled on Twitter shortly before the vote that he could be open to limiting a president’s power on future emergencies. In the hand, however, the concession failed to bring wavering Republicans in line.
“If, at a later date, Congress wants to update the law, I will support those efforts,” Trump posted on Twitter, “but today’s issue is BORDER SECURITY and Crime!!!”
Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, has had a complicated relationship with Trump, whom he publicly criticized during the 2016 election. Trump endorsed Romney’s race for Senate last year to fill the seat left open by the retirement of Orrin Hatch.
“I agree that a physical barrier is urgently needed,” Romney said. “I am seriously concerned that overreach by the executive branch is an invitation to further expansion and abuse by future presidents.”
Alexander had urged Trump for weeks to find a way to access unspent money without taking the controversial step of declaring a national emergency. Though he appeared to be leaning against Trump on the issue, he did not announce his position until just before the vote.
“I support the president on border security,” Alexander said. But, he said, the emergency “is inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution that I swore an oath to support.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., had voiced objections to the emergency declaration earlier this month. Paul said that approving the declaration would be tantamount to giving “extra-Constitutional powers to the president” – something he said he’s unwilling to do.
White House officials scrambled behind the scenes to limit defections. A last-ditch effort by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to ease some GOP concerns about presidential emergencies collapsed after the White House rejected it. Lee’s proposal would have terminated some presidential emergencies after 30 days unless Congress affirmatively voted to reauthorize them.
After the talks fell through, Lee announced he would support the resolution.
Portman announced his position in a speech on the Senate floor, arguing that future president could use another national emergency to tear down Trump’s wall. Administration officials had lobbied for Portman’s vote. The senator told reporters in late February he attended a meeting with Pence and Justice Department officials to discuss the president’s emergency.
“It doesn’t mean the president can ignore Congress and substitute his will for the will of the people,” Portman said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was one of the relatively early opponents of the emergency declaration. Murkowski does not face reelection until 2023, giving her some additional political cover to oppose a president who remains popular within the GOP.
“My concern is really about the institution of the Congress,” Murkowski said recently. “The power of the purse rests with the Congress.”
Among the Senate’s most outspoken centrist Republicans, Collins was an early opponent of Trump’s use of an emergency to free up funding for the wall. She was also not swayed by efforts made by some of her GOP colleagues to build support for Trump with a proposal that would have limited the president’s emergency powers in the future.
That effort, she said, “does not address the current problem that we have, where the president, in my judgment, is usurping Congressional authority to appropriate funds.”
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, took the unusual step of announcing his decision to oppose Trump by tweeting a photograph of a hand-written statement, including with edit marks.
“The president can advance the building of a wall with the funding just approved by Congress,” Moran wrote on a legal pad, referring to the recently passed legislation that reopened federal agencies after the historic 35-day government shutdown. “The declaration of an emergency is not necessary.”