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Tillis reverses course, votes to support Trump on national emergency declaration

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis voted Thursday to support President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration, a reversal from his previous public position.

Tillis, a Republican, announced his change on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, saying conversations with Trump administration officials and fellow senators about potential changes that would affect future emergency declarations had convinced him to vote the other way.

“I come to the floor to say I do not intend to vote for the resolution of disapproval. And here’s why. A lot has changed over the last three weeks,” Tillis said.

Tillis spoke just moments before the vote on the House-passed disapproval resolution. The Senate approved the disapproval resolution with 12 Republicans joining 47 Democratic-caucus members. Trump is expected to block the resolution with the first veto of his presidency.

Trump declared a national emergency on Feb. 15 after failing to get the money he wanted for a southern border wall from Congress. The emergency allows him to take money from other parts of government to use for a wall, circumventing Congress’ traditional role as arbiter of spending decisions.

Tillis laid out his objections to the national emergency declaration late last month, taking a very public stand against Trump on constitutional and precedent-setting grounds.

“As a U.S. senator, I cannot justify providing the executive with more ways to bypass Congress. As a conservative, I cannot endorse a precedent that I know future left-wing presidents will exploit to advance radical policies that will erode economic and individual freedoms,” Tills wrote in a Feb. 25 op-ed for The Washington Post.

But Tillis, who is running for re-election in 2020, faced strong public pressure from Trump, who issued daily Twitter missives to wavering Republicans accusing them of siding with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat. On Thursday morning, Trump wrote that “a vote for today’s resolution by Republican Senators is a vote for Nancy Pelosi, Crime, and the Open Border Democrats!”

Primary challenge?

North Carolina Republicans fumed over Tillis’ original position with some declaring publicly that they wanted to see a primary challenger.

“We’re not happy with the way Senator Tillis seems not to support the president,” said Diane Parnell, chairwoman of the Rockingham County Republican Party, told The News & Observer earlier this month.

Conservatives floated the idea of a sitting U.S. House member running against Tillis — with Rep. Mark Meadows and Rep. Mark Walker most prominently mentioned. Tillis said the idea of a primary challenger played no role in his vote.

“I’ve naturally assumed I was going to have a primary challenge. It usually happens nearly every election cycle in North Carolina,” Tillis told reporters after Thursday’s vote.

Meadows has long said he has no plans to run. Though Walker left open the door to a challenge, his communications director said Thursday he is not planning to run against Tillis.

“Congressman Walker is humbled to have the support and consideration of conservatives across North Carolina, but is not planning to primary Thom Tillis,” communications director Jack Minor said in a statement.

Rep. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, told The News & Observer that Tillis, a former state House speaker, was “rock solid” for a primary, regardless of how he voted on the national emergency declaration.

Future emergencies

After the vote, Tillis said in a statement that he’d built consensus with administration officials about amending the National Emergencies Act to “prevent a future left-wing president from misusing their authority. I’m incredibly encouraged by the historic commitment from the President to restore proper balance between the executive and legislative branches.”

But, as Tillis acknowledged, Democrats in the House have said they won’t move that bill — not after allowing Trump to declare this emergency on the divisive border wall.

Jordan Shaw, a longtime Tillis staffer who now works as a consultant for his campaign, said Tillis was able to leverage his position into results, in this case movement from the White House on the National Emergencies Act.

“This is an example of Thom Tillis getting results when a lot of other people just hid behind rhetoric,” said Shaw, who works for OnMessage.

North Carolina Democrats wasted little time in blasting Tillis for his changing position.

“Senator Tillis made a big show about how he’d stand up for North Carolina but caved under pressure,” said North Carolina Democratic Party spokesman Robert Howard in a statement. “Tillis again reminded the entire state who he is: a spineless politician who won’t keep his promises and looks out for himself instead of North Carolina.”

Like Tillis, Republican North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr also voted against the disapproval resolution. He had not made his stance public before the vote.

“Securing America’s borders is one of our government’s basic responsibilities, and essential for ensuring the safety of our nation,” Burr said in a statement after the vote. “After reviewing the emergency declaration with my counsel, I believe the President’s efforts to secure our Southern border are lawful based on the authorities passed by Congress.”

Emma Dumain and Kate Irby of McClatchyDC contributed to this report.

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