WASHINGTON – In a stunning rebuke, a dozen defecting Republicans joined Senate Democrats Thursday to block the national emergency that President Donald Trump declared so he could build his border wall with Mexico. The rejection capped a week of confrontation with the White House as both parties in Congress strained to exert their power in new ways.
The 59-41 tally, following the Senate's vote a day earlier to end U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen, promised to force Trump into the first vetoes of his presidency. Trump had warned against both actions. Moments after Thursday's vote, the president tweeted: “VETO!”
Two years into the Trump era, a defecting dozen Republicans, pushed along by Democrats, showed a willingness to take that political risk. Twelve GOP senators, including the party's 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney of Utah, joined the dissent over the emergency declaration order that would enable the president to seize for the wall billions of dollars Congress intended elsewhere.
“The Senate's waking up a little bit to our responsibilities,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who said the chamber had become “a little lazy” as an equal branch of government. “I think the value of these last few weeks is to remind the Senate of our constitutional place.”
Many senators said the vote was not necessarily a rejection of the president or the wall, but protections against future presidents – namely a Democrat who might want to declare an emergency on climate change, gun control or any number of other issues.
“This is a constitutional question, it's a question about the balance of power that is core to our constitution,” Romney said.
Thursday's vote was the first direct challenge to the 1976 National Emergencies Act, just as Wednesday's on Yemen was the first time Congress invoked the decades-old War Powers Act to try to rein in a president.
The result is a role-reversal for Republicans who have been reluctant to take on Trump, bracing against his high-profile tweets and public attacks of reprimand. But now they are facing challenges from voters – in some states where senators face stiff elections – who are expecting more from Congress.
Centrist Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins, who's among those most vulnerable in 2020, 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.”
A White House official said Trump won't forget when senators who oppose him want him to attend fundraisers or provide other help. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on internal deliberations.
Trump brought on the challenge months ago when he all but dared Congress not to give him the $5.7 billion he was demanding to build the U.S.-Mexico wall or risk a federal government shutdown.
Congress declined, and the result was the longest shutdown in U.S. history. Against the advice of GOP leaders, Trump invoked the national emergency declaration last month, allowing him to try to tap some $3.6 billion for the wall by shuffling money from military projects, and that drew outrage from many lawmakers. Trump had campaigned for president promising Mexico would pay for the wall.
The Democratic-led House swiftly voted to terminate Trump's order. Senate Republicans spent weeks trying to avoid this outcome, up until the night before the vote, in a script that was familiar – up until the gavel.