Senate Republicans on the verge of a massive rebuke of President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration are now scrambling to soften the blow with changes to a resolution of disapproval crafted by House Democrats, according to a half dozen senators interviewed by McClatchy Thursday.
The move comes as the president has publicly warned Republicans not to challenge his decision to use emergency powers to fund his border wall.
The Democratic-controlled House passed a resolution to do so earlier this month, and the Republican-controlled Senate is expected to vote on it before leaving Washington for a state work period at the end of next week.
Four GOP senators say they plan to join Democrats in that vote. That decision has already stoked discussion of a 2020 primary challenge against one of the most vocal of those defectors, North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis.
“The problem we have now is we have the Democrats saying you have to rescind it (the emergency declaration) because it’s a false crisis; it’s not a false crisis,” said Tillis, who published an op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this month vowing to vote in favor of the resolution rebuking Trump’s emergency declaration.
Tillis told McClatchy on Thursday that he was working on amendments to that resolution that would detangle his position from that of Democrats, who say there is no emergency at the border.
“We need to make a statement with respect to the crisis at the border and make it very clear that this is not us siding with Democrats on a false crisis,” Tillis said of his proposed changes.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday, “There will be enough votes to pass the resolution of disapproval, which will then be vetoed by the president, and then in all likelihood, the veto will be upheld in the House.”
But by Thursday afternoon, GOP senators were attempting to change that course.
In a caucus meeting off of the Senate chamber they huddled to strategize ways to bring Republican skeptics back around to stop the legislation from advancing from the upper chamber.
“We’re looking at amendments, what the parliamentarian status is, and some other legislative options as well,” Tillis said.
“Some people say let’s go ahead and pass a resolution which gives the president up to the $5.6 billion and say we’re all for that, but basically disapprove of the emergency part,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the Senate GOP leadership team who plans to vote against the declaration of disapproval.
Another route, Cornyn said, “focuses on the money he (Trump) could reprogram without declaring a national emergency.”
Efforts to get the White House to drop the emergency declaration — and the presumed lengthy court battle to follow — and instead secure the money elsewhere have failed so far, Cornyn said.
“There’s money available that doesn’t require the declaration of a national emergency, and a number of our members have been talking to the White House about, why get involved in this litigation? Why have this additional controversy when it could be done in a less controversial way that’s less likely to require litigation?” he said. “Apparently the White House is not persuaded.”
Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, said that lawmakers discussed a variety of options at the meeting, including blocking Trump’s use of a national emergency declaration while still steering additional money toward border security.
Hours later, Roberts’ spokeswoman said in an email that the senator, who will not seek re-election in 2020, has officially decided to vote against the disapproval resolution. The decision comes after Roberts received a phone call this week from a White House official on the issue.
Roberts had previously criticized Trump’s use of an emergency declaration, but he has also repeatedly referred to a crisis on the border.
“You can describe it as politics or not, but the president believes there’s a disaster down there. I don’t think it’s a made-up thing,” Roberts said earlier in the day.