Senate Republicans are rallying around Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even as it appears he’ll fail to protect President Donald Trump from a sharp rebuke on his top domestic priority: an emergency declaration to build a wall at the border with Mexico.
McConnell, who had initially warned Trump against going around Congress for the money, agreed to support it. But he and the White House have been unable to quell Republican opposition which threatens to result Thursday in a rare loss for Trump in the Republican-controlled Senate.
While Trump at the White House declared it a “bad thing” that a number of Republican senators are poised to side with Democrats and back a resolution to block his declaration, McConnell’s Republican caucus voiced nothing but support for the majority leader’s strategy.
McConnell, they said, gave the administration the chance to make its case, while at the same time provided a safety valve for senators who oppose Trump’s move as an end run around Congress and for those who could face competitive reelection challenges in 2020.
“It takes a very skillful majority leader, but we have one,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, said of balancing the needs of the GOP caucus with Trump. Alexander has called Trump’s measure “unnecessary, unwise and inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution” and urged him to reconsider.
Senators had hoped to back a measure sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that would curb the president’s power to declare a national emergency in return for more Republicans voting against the Democratic resolution, but that fell apart Wednesday when the White House signaled its opposition to Lee’s measure.
Senators said McConnell did the right thing by keeping the Senate negotiating.
“We have cussed and discussed this thing now for a month,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, who planned to vote with Trump and against the Democratic measure. “Everybody’s had their chance to weigh in. Now it’s time to stand up and vote.”
He said he didn’t expect the vote to affect McConnell’s relationship with the White House, “if we all act like adults and take our meds.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who opposes Trump’s declaration, said a “significant number” of Republican are poised to vote with him, despite what he characterized earlier in the week as aggressive efforts on the White House’s behalf to change minds.
“I think Congress should allocate the money and that’s a very strong belief, it’s also in the Constitution,” Paul told reporters.
The vote comes as Trump has publicly warned senators not to stand in the way of his emergency declaration.
Trump declared a national emergency on Feb. 15 after failing to secure all of the money he wanted for the border wall through Congress. The Democratic-led U.S House two weeks later passed a resolution to reject the emergency declaration, with 13 Republicans supporting the measure.
McConnell, who had advised Trump against declaring a national emergency, said he’d support the move when Trump announced it. But he seemed hardly enthusiastic, at one point telling reporters that he hadn’t “reached a total conclusion” about the measure’s legality.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, a close Trump ally who will vote against the disapproval resolution, said he thought McConnell was “doing the best he can” considering the fervent opposition Trump’s emergency declaration sparked among a number of Republican senators.
“I think Mitch agrees it’s an emergency,” Graham said of the border crisis. “I think Mitch believes $5.7 billion could be wisely spent.”
As for whether Trump would suffer a political embarrassment if senators vote in favor of the resolution — and whether that in turn would harm McConnell’s standing with the White House — Graham said neither would be the case.
“You either win or you lose and Trump’s gonna win,” Graham said. “Trump’s gonna veto it, and the veto will be sustained, so it’s an academic exercise more than it is anything else, and I believe people should vote their conscience.”
Still, there were limits to how many defections the measure to limit a president’s authority would have prevented. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who could face a competitive reelection, said she she would vote to restrict presidential authority, but that the Lee provision wouldn’t affect her plan to vote against Trump’s emergency declaration. By declaring a national emergency to claim money for the wall, Collins said, Trump “in my judgment is usurping congressional authority to appropriate funds.”
McConnell tried to avoid a two-punch defeat to Trump, urging colleagues on the Senate floor to reject a resolution that seeks to rebuke Trump for his reluctance to tie Saudi Arabia’s crown prince to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by ending U.S. military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
McConnell said his colleagues may “rightly” have concerns with the administration’s stance on Saudi Arabia, but they should take it up “directly” with the White House or Saudi Arabian officials “as I have done” and not vote for what he called a counterproductive resolution.
“The focus should be on ending the war in Yemen responsibly,” McConnell said. “Pulling the plug on support to our partners only undermines the leverage and influence we need for our diplomatic efforts.”
The White House issued a veto threat on the measure soon after McConnell spoke, arguing that because Trump has directed the U.S. military to support the Saudi-led coalition, “the joint resolution would raise serious constitutional concerns to the extent that it seeks to override the President’s determination as Commander in Chief.”