WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate is about to be tested, and Republican senators know it.
That’s why many are squirming as they’re realizing they’ll soon be forced to make a choice: join the House in defending Congress’ right to control the nation’s spending, or go along with President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border.
While on Tuesday the House vote to block the declaration fell short of the number needed to override Trump’s promised veto, the 245-182 margin was wider than expected. And that’s putting pressure on GOP members of Congress like never before.
“I think many of my colleagues know they’re being inconsistent, but they feel that politically they’re in a bind,” Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who joined 12 other Republicans in bucking the White House Tuesday, told VICE News.
When newly minted Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was asked by VICE News why this wasn’t a crisis two months ago when the GOP controlled the House of Representatives, he demurred.
“Well, times change as it moves forward,” McCarthy said Tuesday, citing "more reports of the drugs coming across" and "human trafficking," as well as "60,000 people arrested each month."
But border arrests were actually slightly down in January, according to Customs and Border Protection. And the president and his top administration officials have been playing fast and loose with other figures they claim about illegal drugs entering the nation (they mostly come in from official ports of entry, not the border, according to available data from the government).
GOP senators on the fence
So far, two Republican senators have said they will join the Democrats and support the resolution blocking Trump’s national emergency declaration: Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). But others remain undecided on how they’ll vote even if they oppose the president’s emergency declaration in principle.
“It’s unnecessary, unwise and inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution, and when I see what I’m asked to vote on, I will make a decision about how to vote,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) told reporters in the basement of the Capitol about the concise legislation the House passed Tuesday.
While other Senate Republicans generally agree with Trump that the situation at the border has been at crisis levels for some time, they’re also weighing what the lasting repercussions of rubber-stamping the president’s emergency declaration will mean when a Democrat recaptures the White House in the future.
“I am very worried prudentially about the slippery slope that could occur emboldening future Democratic presidents.”
“I am very worried prudentially about the slippery slope that could occur emboldening future Democratic presidents to implement radical policies contrary to law and contrary to the Constitution,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told VICE News while walking next to the trams that run under the Capitol complex.
Other Republicans say that while the president’s action is unsettling, they’re willing to hold their noses and support it, in part because this scenario was laid out by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell before the Senate voted to avoid another government shutdown. And the emergency declaration is already being challenged in the courts from numerous different angles.
"Not the preferred route"
“This is not the preferred route,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who was on the conference committee that wrote the funding bill to reopen the government. “Congress gave him the ability to do this in the Seventies – to declare an emergency – and so I’m going to be supportive of it, but I think, certainly as an appropriator, we need to keep our handle on our ability to make those decisions.”
Still, many Republicans are worried about Congress ceding its constitutional authority to fund the government even as they support Trump and his long-promised, multibillion-dollar dream wall.
“I agree with the need for about $25 billion to go down there; I just don’t think this is the right, sustainable path. And I do believe Congress has to play a part in it,” said said Sen. Tillis.
Tillis fears the GOP will set a dangerous precedent if they use any means necessary – like going around the Congress after it rejected the president’s border funding request – to build a wall.
“You always worry about that,” he added. “That’s why I think it’s time for us just to support the president – but do it in the right way.”
Cover: President Donald Trump shakes hands with Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as Sen. John Thune (R-SD), Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) look on at the U.S. Capitol after the weekly Republican Senate policy luncheon January 09, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)