WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House labored Tuesday to prevent a high-profile congressional rejection of President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southwest border, or at least reduce the number of Republican senators joining Democrats to thwart him.
Vice President Mike Pence met privately at the Capitol with five GOP senators as Republicans sought a way to bolster support for Trump in a showdown vote set for Thursday. Since the Democratic-run House voted last month to block Trump, Senate passage would send the resolution to the White House, where it would face a certain veto.
Congress would be highly unlikely to muster the two-thirds majorities needed to eventually override a veto. However, final congressional approval of the resolution on Thursday would highlight a clash in which Trump was being forced to protect his signature campaign promise — building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — by vetoing legislation sent to him by a Republican-led Senate. Congress has never before voted to overturn a presidentially declared emergency.
“They’d like to win and short of that they don’t want a jailbreak” with large numbers of Republicans defecting, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, an adviser to Senate GOP leadership, said of the eleventh-hour White House lobbying effort.
Thursday’s vote forces GOP senators to choose uncomfortably between defying Trump and alienating his conservative voters or opening the door to future presidents using emergency declarations to spend money on priorities Congress opposes.
GOP Sens. Mike Lee, of Utah, Thom Tillis, of North Carolina, and others were in discussions with the White House about related legislation that would curb the ability of future presidents to declare national emergencies. Trump proclaimed an emergency last month to divert $3.6 billion from military construction projects to build border barriers after Congress voted to provide him with less than $1.4 billion for barrier construction in the budget.
If Trump would agree to sign legislation handcuffing future emergency declarations, more GOP senators might back his border emergency declaration in Thursday’s vote. In talks held last weekend, Republican senators tried to encourage the White House to support lawmakers’ effort to rein in presidential emergencies.
There were indications the White House might be gaining Republican allies for Thursday’s vote, but it was unclear whether there would be enough to prevail. Republicans control the Senate 53-47, meaning just four GOP defections would be enough to ensure passage of the resolution blocking Trump’s border emergency.
Four Republicans have said they would join Democrats and back the measure: Tillis, Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Kentucky’s Rand Paul.
While Paul said earlier this month that there were “at least 10” GOP senators prepared to oppose Trump’s emergency, he told reporters Tuesday that he now expects fewer defections. GOP senators are “being beaten up right now” to fall in line, he said. “So if you see anybody that’s got blood dripping out of their ear, they may be changing,” he said.
Murkowski said in an interview that she would consider backing legislation “that actually does constrain” the president’s emergency powers, but added, “At this point in time, we don’t have it.”
Under a 1976 law, presidents are given wide discretion in determining when a national emergency has occurred. Congress can vote to block an emergency declaration, but the two-thirds majorities required by the Constitution to overcome presidential vetoes makes it hard for lawmakers to prevail.
Republicans said under Lee’s proposal, a presidential emergency would last 30 days unless Congress votes to extend it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Lee’s measure would apply prospectively, not to Trump’s current border emergency.
Democrats and some Republicans said Trump was abusing the emergency law by issuing a declaration to access money Congress had explicitly voted to deny him. Trump had repeatedly said Mexico would pay for the wall, which is not happening.
A vote on Lee’s plan could well occur after Congress returns from a recess later this month.