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The Senate's sound and fury over a non-emergency

The Week logo The Week 4 days ago Matthew Walther
President Trump. © Illustrated | Nataliashein/iStock, LUONG THAI LINH/AFP/Getty Images President Trump.

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Michele Bachmann is weeping somewhere. If Thursday's vote to pass legislation that would block President Trump's recent national emergency declaration is any indication, for the first time in my life we have a chamber of Congress controlled by members of the Tea Party.

Every single Democrat on Thursday sounded like an obscure right-wing House candidate circa 2012. Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.) made it sound as if he believes that eminent domain is illegal instead of a long-standing practice with a broad base of support among liberal legal thinkers. He droned on about how Trump, "like some autocrat," was "gonna break the Constitution." He called Republican support for the declaration "a betrayal of conservative principles." Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) made repeated references to "this moment in history" and called Trump's use of executive power to appropriate the budget equivalent of a few pennies some kind of unprecedented looting of our treasury. He even went so far as to argue that people could disagree in good faith about the advisability of the wall — a break from recent Democratic rhetoric but very much in line with where the party was even six years ago.

Who knew that the biggest problem was the money? Nearly all of the Democrats told sob stories about how the $8 or so billion Trump plans to use for his wall project is going to starve the military. These are rain drops in a boulder-sized bucket full of holes and these spendthrifts know it.

Republican supporters of the bill were in rare form as well. For about 30 seconds Mike Lee (Utah) came as close to self-awareness as I have ever heard him. He confessed that he is often mocked for believing in the "old Schoolhouse Rock version of how a bill becomes a law." I wonder why. Rob Portman's (Ohio) galaxy-brained argument was that Trump should go ahead with a national emergency declaration but grab the cash for it from some other source.

In any case, the preeners on all sides got what they wanted. The bill passed 59-41.

What difference does it make, though? Trump is going to veto the bill, and there aren't nearly enough votes to override him. Only 12 Republicans broke with their party; the others who spoke up made it clear that they will not be changing their minds. Which means that all the supposed horrors — the creeping autocracy, the Pentagon fighting wars with bubble gum and paperclips, the virtual disappearance of the National Guard — that were foretold by supporters of the legislation will no doubt come to pass. Except that they won't, of course, because the military will do just fine without $8 or even $80 billion here or there. If they still want it for all the no-doubt world-historically important projects the funds in question are currently designated for, they will ask for them and get them. The Pentagon will be fine. So will our beloved Constitution, which has already survived a unilateral executive makeover of the immigration system under Barack Obama and goodness knows how many other presidential abuses under what Democrats used to call "the most impeachable administration in the history of our country" in those dark days before George W. Bush was America's most beloved candy sharer.

Meanwhile all the legal challenges to Trump's wall declaration will remain in place after his veto. This project is going to be held up in the courts for years — certainly well through the 2020 election. The president surely knows this, which is why he has already moved on from talking about the necessity of building the wall to declaring that large sections of it have already been built (this is in fact true but they existed long before he was in office). Nothing anyone did or said on Thursday changed a thing. Amazing, isn't it, how every time a handful of Republicans decide to make noise about "principles" it always involves something with minimal stakes and maximum headline potential? I hope Willard Romney gets a gushing Atlantic profile out of it.

Trump never cared about the wall except as a talking point. What Thursday showed us is that this is true of virtually every other politician as well.

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