Senate Rejects Trump’s Border Emergency Declaration, Setting Up First Veto
WASHINGTON — A dozen Republicans joined Senate Democrats on Thursday to overturn President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southwestern border, arguing the president had exceeded his powers in trying to build a border wall over Congress’s objections.
The 59-41 vote on the House-passed measure sets up the first veto of Trump’s presidency. It was not overwhelming enough to override the promised veto, but Congress has now voted to block a presidential emergency declaration for the first time — and on one of the core promises that animated Trump’s political rise, the vow to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.
“Never before has a president asked for funding, Congress has not provided it, and the president then has used the National Emergencies Act of 1976 to spend the money anyway,” Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, said. “The problem with this is that after a Revolutionary War against a king, our nation’s founders gave to Congress the power to approve all spending so that the president would not have too much power. This check on the executive is a crucial source of our freedom.”
The president tweeted his reaction: “VETO!”
It was the latest sign that the Senate’s cautious Republican majority, spurred on by a far bolder Democrat-controlled House, was beginning to reassert its authority with a president who had gone virtually unchecked during his first two years in office.
Ultimately, a dozen Republicans joined Senate Democrats in supporting the House-passed resolution of disapproval: Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Susan Collins of Maine, Mike Lee of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and Moran.
Collins, who’s among those most vulnerable in a 2020 reelection race, said she’s sure the president ‘‘will not be happy with my vote. But I'm a United States senator, and I feel my job is to stand up for the Constitution, so let the chips fall where they may.’’
Romney said ‘‘this is a vote for the Constitution and for the balance of powers that is at its core.’’
In an attempt to limit defections before the vote, Trump had sought to frame the vote publicly as not only a declaration of support for his border security policies but a sign of personal loyalty.
“It’s pure and simple: It’s a vote for border security, it’s a vote for no crime,” Trump told reporters before the vote, which he declared on Twitter to be “a vote for Nancy Pelosi, Crime and the Open Border Democrats!”
But he could not overcome concerns among Republican senators about the legality of redirecting $3.6 billion from military construction projects to the border wall even after Congress explicitly rejected the funding request.
“I believe the use of emergency powers in this circumstance violates the Constitution,” said Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, in a statement written on lined paper.
The vote marks an explicit rebuke of Trump’s effort to sidestep the constitutional power of the purse given to Congress, and although supporters will not be able to override a veto, the action could bolster a number of lawsuits that contest the emergency declaration as a flagrant violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers.
Three Republican senators — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Ted Cruz of Texas — interrupted Trump’s dinner with his wife, Melania, at the White House on Wednesday night to share their concerns about the constitutional precedent that Trump had established.
Cruz initiated the meeting, in hopes of selling Trump on his own rewrite of the emergency declaration law that would restrict funding from military sources, according to a senior Republican aide with direct knowledge of the proposal.
Trump summoned a lawyer from the White House counsel’s office, who said the plan would strip the president of powers he currently possesses. “No way,” an annoyed Trump told the trio, according to a person with knowledge of the exchange.
“I said there’s some people who want to talk to you, they have some concerns about the emergency declaration,” Graham said. “Hell, if I was him, I would have told us to go to hell.”
All three men sided with Trump and voted against the resolution.
Graham, along with other lawmakers supportive of the declaration, argued that it was within the jurisdiction of the National Emergencies Act and was needed to address what Trump and his supporters deem to be a crisis at the border.
“I take Congress’s prerogative over appropriations extremely seriously,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader. “But,” he added, “the Senate should not be in the business of misusing specific resolutions to express opinions on more general matters.”
At a party lunch in early March, McConnell canvassed Republicans senators and found virtually no support for the president’s position — then he informed senators running for reelection that they were free to vote “the politics,” if they chose, according to a person who attended.
He also repeatedly told senators that he had warned Trump against enacting the emergency declaration in the first place.
In a volley of phone calls with Senate Republicans over the last few weeks, the president warned of the electoral consequences of defying his will and dismissed concerns about the constitutional precedent of his order.
It remains unclear what military construction projects will be affected by the president’s national emergency declaration.
Multiple Republican senators, including Portman and Alexander, had urged the president to leave the construction funds alone and instead use more typical presidential authority to pull from other programs.
At a Senate Armed Services hearing Thursday morning, acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan said that up to 40 percent of the US troops currently on the southwest border with Mexico would be pulled back over the next month.
He said that would reduce the number to no more than 4,000; there are currently around 6,000 — 2,000 National Guard and the rest active duty.
Pressed by Senator Mazie Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, on whether he considered the border mission as protecting the country from a military threat, Shanahan said he did not.
“I agree it’s a security challenge, not a military threat,” saod General Joseph Dunford Jr., the Joint Chiefs chairman.