The surprise announcement Thursday that President Donald Trump will use his emergency powers to try and build his border wall blindsided some Republicans, confused others and sent the Senate GOP into a general state of shock.
The news, delivered by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor, came after weeks of warnings from his own party not to declare a national emergency at the border.
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Trump has decided to challenge Republicans’ resolve anyway — but he may not like the outcome. Aides privately predicted Trump will lose a vote on the Senate floor once the Democratic House passes a resolution of disapproval to block the move.
Meanwhile, the GOP Senate majority was casting about for answers.
“I wish he wouldn’t have done it,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who McConnell interrupted on the Senate floor to make his announcement. “If [Trump] figures that Congress didn’t do enough and he’s got to do it, then I imagine we’ll find out whether he’s got the authority to do it by the courts.”
“In general, I’m not for running the government by emergency, nor spending money. The Constitution’s pretty clear: spending originates and is directed by Congress,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who like almost everyone else on Capitol Hill wants more information. “So I’m not really for it.”
Republicans that have previously panned the idea as setting a bad precedent for future presidents were careful in how they answered questions in the immediate aftermath of the president’s decision.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said it was a “bad idea” but needed to learn more. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said it was “unnecessary” because Trump has other ways of getting money but said he needed further guidance. And Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) fretted that it was a “dramatic expansion” of the emergency powers.
Others were blunter.
“It’s a mistake on the president’s part,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “I also believe that it will be challenged in court. It undermines the role of Congress and the appropriations process.”
“I’m not enthusiastic about it, but I don’t know whether that’s actually going to happen, and if so, what follows from there. I don’t know what authority he may or may not invoke,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).
The question is not simply a theoretical one. Republicans might have to go on record on the Senate floor in the coming days over the matter. Under congressional rules, the Senate would be forced to act on a resolution of disapproval passed by the House, and just four Republicans would need to join with 47 Democrats to rebuke the president at the simple majority threshold.
And given the broad uncertainty over Trump’s plans, even concerned Republicans like Toomey and Paul declined to take a hard line one way or the other.
One GOP senator, requesting anonymity, even wondered whether Trump had botched his message to McConnell in their private conversation. This senator, like most Republicans, would prefer Trump to stop short of declaring a national emergency and use existing anti-drug corridor laws to fund the border wall.
“I have some concerns,” added Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “There are ways you could transfer funds that I could be fully supportive of, and there are other ways that I’d have a lot of problems with.”
Yet if Trump moves forward, he’s probably going to have plenty of the party behind him. And he seems likely to be able to sustain a veto if necessary, given McConnell’s support of the president — despite the Kentucky Republican having publicly warned Trump not to take this step in front of TV cameras just a few days ago.
“I think it’s fine. I think it helps a lot of Republicans feel better about voting for this bill,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) as he prepared to vote on legislation that provided $1.37 billion for a border barrier, far less than the $5.7 billion Trump had demanded.
Still, a battle over Trump’s executive powers will draw attention to the Senate GOP’s on-again, off-again rift with the president over his hard-line immigration positions. And a veto override vote against their own president is not what Republicans want to be dealing with as the 2020 campaign begins.
Some Republicans breathed a sigh of relief that Trump’s unilateral move would at least end, for now, a wall fight that sparked a 35-day partial shutdown and threatened another.
But the move also represents a blow to any GOP effort to work on immigration reform while Trump is president.
“I always kind of take pause to the assertion of executive power,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “The main reason is it could detract attention away from the long-term solution that can only occur through an act of Congress.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.