GOP gently reprimands Trump but signals no action

Can Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell stop Republicans concerned about President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration?
Can Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell stop Republicans concerned about President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration? AP

While Americans protested nationwide, Republicans stepped carefully against President Donald Trump, criticizing his immigration order but stopping far short of signaling legislative action that might reverse it.

Just seven GOP senators and a handful of House Republicans tried to cool the furor that erupted after Trump’s order led to detentions of even legal residents trying to enter the country from seven predominantly Muslim countries on Saturday, and their words were cautious and gentle.

“I don’t want to criticize them for improving vetting,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told ABC’s “This Week.”

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., agreed: “President Trump and his administration are right to be concerned about national security but it’s unacceptable when even legal permanent residents are being detained or turned away at airports and ports of entry.”

No Republicans raised the prospect of quick legislative action; indeed even the Senate’s first vote on whether to confirm ExxonMobil Chief Executive Office Rex Tillerson, scheduled for Monday night, was on track with no serious GOP demand he explain the policy.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tried to rally the order’s doubters and critics to get Tillerson to answer questions about it: “Was Mr. Tillerson consulted by the administration on these executive orders? Does he support them? Does he agree they are lawful and constitutional? Will he direct the State Department to enforce them if he is confirmed?”

But Republicans, who control the Senate and House of Representatives, would not be baited.

When the Senate returns Monday from a weekend break, there will be a handful of angry Republican senators to watch.

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., longtime critics of Trump, said in a joint statement, “We should not turn our backs on those refugees who have been shown through extensive vetting to pose no demonstrable threat to our nation.”

They offered a blueprint but no timetable for action. “We should not stop green-card holders from returning to the country they call home,” the statement said. “We should not stop those who have served as interpreters for our military and diplomats from seeking refuge in the country they risked their lives to help.”

The senators, respected voices in Washington on national security issues, also said the government should “not turn our backs on those refugees who have been shown through extensive vetting to pose no demonstrable threat to our nation.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said that there’s a need to “tighten things up,” but “we’ve got to do it in a way that is consistent with our values and consistent with our national security.”

Others joining the chorus of cautious skeptics included Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who has lately positioned himself in bipartisan territory on broad federal immigration reform.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, a Senate Intelligence Committee member, wouldn’t discuss possible legislative action. According to spokeswoman Kaylin Minton, Risch “is currently gathering and reviewing information from a number of sources.”

In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has been a consistent supporter of Trump’s action, saying, “President Trump is right to make sure we are doing everything possible to know exactly who is entering our country. Spokeswoman AshLee Strong has said the order does not impose a religious test.

The House, though, has wary Republicans. “The way this is playing out has created a lot of uncertainty and unintended consequences,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif. “As we have seen with previous administrations, executive orders are not the way to resolve ongoing problems.”

Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., a conservative leader in the House, also urged caution.

“We need to slow things down and examine the flaws in the system so that it can be strengthened,” he said. Walker wants the order to not apply to legal United States residents.

But most Republicans sided with Trump on Sunday. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, said he would “firmly support” the ban.

“I support it,” added Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif. “There is no unfettered right to enter the United States, and President Trump has a sworn responsibility to assure that those who do are not hostile to our Constitution or the rule of law.”

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., tweeted, “LONG OVERDUE: A freeze on Syrian refugees and a crackdown on sanctuary cities! Time to protect Americans.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., found, “The President is doing something that people have seen too little of in recent years. He is doing what he told the American people he would do.”

Any immediate legislative push is going to come from Democrats. “We will not stand for this! We are going to fight for ourselves, fight for our Muslim brothers and sisters,” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., told a White House rally.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent a letter to colleagues Sunday promising party members will introduce a measure to rescind Trump’s ban. But Democrats control only 193 House seats. Republicans have 240.

Anna Douglas, William Douglas, Sean Cockerham, Michael Doyle, Matt Schofield, Curtis Tate, Lindsay Wise, Tony Pugh and Rob Hotakainen of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid