GOP hunts for unified strategy in emergency declaration fight

Stefani Reynolds

The fight over President Trump’s emergency declaration is opening new fractures within the Senate Republican caucus ahead of a showdown on the floor next week.

GOP senators are struggling to unify behind a strategy to address the declaration, even as they face pressures like fresh figures released by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that show a dramatic rise in apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border.

{mosads}Republicans are discussing the possibility of alternative measures that would let the caucus lay out its position on border security and offer a counterpoint to a House-passed resolution of disapproval blocking Trump. But instead of bringing Republicans together, they are struggling to agree on what an alternative would look like — underscoring the deep divisions sparked by Trump’s action.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said a number of his Republican colleagues were working to draft a measure but voiced frustration that Majority Leader MItch McConnell (R-Ky.) isn’t more engaged in the talks. He said that by failing to offer their own proposal they were ceding “ball control” to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“Why not do our own? I just don’t know why we’re giving ball control in the United States Senate to Nancy Pelosi, it makes no sense to me,” Johnson said.

He added that he wanted to see McConnell “engage on this, and I’m a little disappointed that he basically capitulated that we’re going to lose.”

The intraparty fight comes as a resolution of disapproval appears to have clinched the support needed to pass the Senate, with GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) saying they will join Democrats in supporting the House-passed measure.

{mosads}McConnell reiterated to reporters this week that he believes the resolution blocking Trump will pass the Senate, setting the stage for what’s expected to be the president’s first veto. But McConnell also tipped his hand to the intense debate that Trump prompted within the caucus, noting that it is dominating recent meetings.

“I would be less than candid with you if I didn’t say we’ve had a lot of spirited discussion … about this whole issue,” McConnell said. “There are a lot of different opinions.”

Trump last month declared a national emergency after Congress passed a funding bill that included $1.375 billion for physical barriers on the southern border, well below the $5.7 billion the president requested.

That created a Catch-22 for Republicans, who have been wary of breaking with Trump on border security but also have concerns that he is establishing a precedent for a future Democratic president to force through action on issues like climate change or gun control.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters after a GOP leadership meeting that he thought Republicans would offer alternatives, even if those measures had to meet the challenging 60-vote threshold.

“There’s clear concern about the direction this is taking and multiple ways to express that could be helpful,” Blunt said on Tuesday.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, added that “some people would like to be able to express themselves other than an up-or-down on a resolution of disapproval.”

Republicans are facing myriad complicating policy and political factors as they try to plot their strategy ahead of next week’s floor vote. Underscoring the fluidity of their discussions, GOP senators have considered everything from amending the House resolution, offering an alternative or even voting on both a House resolution and their own proposal.

Trump has warned that voting to block his declaration would be “very dangerous” because it would impact border security. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) added on Tuesday that Trump characterized Republicans as “playing with fire” on the emergency declaration fight.

Further complicating their deliberations, the CBP announced Tuesday that there was a significant jump in the number of people apprehended while crossing the border, increasing from 47,986 in January to 66,450 last month. The spike could help feed Trump’s argument that there is a “crisis” along the southern border.

An alternative GOP measure could give Republicans a chance to thread the needle by backing Trump’s border strategy while airing some of their grievances on the national emergency.

“We do need a vehicle to express exactly what we feel. We definitely support the president in his desire to secure the border, provide better security for this nation, build better barriers, but we’re also concerned about the whole constitutional issue,” Johnson said.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said Congress could create a conference committee to hash out differences if Senate Republicans are able to come up with their own proposal, and that he would support amending the National Emergencies Act.

“We’re having discussions about what our resolution ought to look like,” he said.

Talk of crafting a GOP alternative to the House-passed resolution comes as Trump’s actions have led to rumblings within the Senate Republican conference of amending the National Emergencies Act to claw back from the executive branch some of Congress’s spending authority.

Republicans indicated Tuesday that such changes could be included in their alternative. A spokesman for Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) previously told The Hill that the senator was crafting legislation that would make it easier for Congress to cancel a national emergency declaration.

“I do think that we ought to revisit the incredible delegation of authority,” added Cornyn, who has said he will vote against the resolution of disapproval.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said he was willing to look at legislation amending the national emergency statute but also predicted that, in response to Trump’s declaration, “future appropriations bills will restrict his ability to use those funds.”

Republican discussions on floor strategy are expected to go up until the eleventh hour. A vote in the Senate will take place before March 15, when lawmakers leave for a weeklong recess.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said Republicans could offer their own alternative but added that where the conference might end up is a “work in progress.”

“Our members have had pretty robust discussions about this over the past several weeks and a path forward, we’re still charting that,” Thune said. “They want to help the president, they want to give him the funding he’s asked for. And the question is, what’s the best way to do that? That’s what we’ve been grappling with.”

Asked if there was enough unity within the conference for Republicans to agree on an alternative, Thune laughed, adding, “I wouldn’t say there’s one chosen alternative.”

Tags Donald Trump John Cornyn John Thune Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowski Mike Lee Mike Rounds Nancy Pelosi Pat Toomey Rand Paul Ron Johnson Roy Blunt Susan Collins Thom Tillis

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