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‘A recipe for disaster’? Trump’s border emergency drags the GOP into a risky fight ahead of 2020

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/16/2019 Rachael Bade, Sean Sullivan, Josh Dawsey

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) arrives Feb. 7 on Capitol Hill. McConnell spent weeks warning against a national emergency only to declare his support for the move this week.: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) arrives Feb. 7 on Capitol Hill. McConnell spent weeks warning against a national emergency only to declare his support for the move later. © Jonathan Ernst/Reuters U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) arrives Feb. 7 on Capitol Hill. McConnell spent weeks warning against a national emergency only to declare his support for the move later. President Trump’s decision to unilaterally attempt to build his promised wall at the Mexico border is pulling his party into a tailspin of drama and unease — a move that could help his own 2020 reelection effort even at the expense of fellow Republicans, numerous GOP officials said on Friday.

Trump’s bid to circumvent Congress puts GOP lawmakers — including many vulnerable senators up for reelection in the next cycle — in the position of having to choose between their party’s leader and their self-described opposition to executive overreach.

If they back Trump’s emergency declaration, many lawmakers worry, they will be greenlighting a White House power grab that infringes on Congress’s constitutional power over spending. But if they oppose it, they risk attracting the wrath of Trump’s political base — and perhaps a primary challenge.

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It is also unclear whether even the most vocal GOP critics of Trump’s move will actually vote to disapprove of his emergency declaration, and few were willing to address the issue on Friday. According to one White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to comment publicly, administration aides have urged lawmakers to keep their powder dry for now rather than stating how they’d vote publicly.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who spent weeks warning against a national emergency only to declare his support for the move this week — issued a noncommittal statement Friday blaming Democrats for the border impasse but offering no opinion on Trump’s formal declaration.

Looming above it all is the possibility of an epic constitutional standoff between the White House and Congress that could be seriously damaging to Republicans.

“It is a recipe for disaster for McConnell and his flock of Senate Republicans up in 2020,” said Dan Eberhart, an oil industry executive and GOP donor who called the predicament a “no-win situation.” “Choose Trump and the emergency declaration and offend moderates, or upset Trump and risk being toppled in a Trump-fueled primary challenge.”

The interparty feud will come to a head in a matter of weeks, as House Democrats gear up to pass a resolution disapproving of Trump’s emergency declaration. Under congressional rules, that resolution would automatically come to the Senate for a vote in a matter of days, forcing Republicans to take a position.

That could pose a problem for senators such as Thom Tillis of North Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas — all Republicans up for reelection next year. Cornyn and Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) hail from border states, where their constituents could see the Trump administration attempting to seize property under eminent domain laws to build a border wall. Tillis represents a swing state where he needs both independents and Trump loyalists to win reelection.

Even Cotton, a longtime Pentagon champion from a deep-red state, will have to balance his support for the president and the southern barrier with his desire to keep the military budget intact. Military hawks had begged the administration to spare construction dollars that support troops in any attempt to fund a wall project. Trump ignored them, irritating some of Capitol Hill’s most vocal advocates of defense spending.

“Dollars that are in the Department of Defense are already a national emergency,” said Rep. Michael R. Turner, a senior Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee who hails from a swing district in Ohio. “Going to our national security, our Department of Defense dollars, and cannibalizing them will harm our military.”

Realizing that they must win over GOP skeptics, the White House is ramping up a lobbying push on Capitol Hill. Administration officials have started reaching out to GOP lawmakers and circulating talking points that defend Trump’s plan. The Office of Management and Budget hosted a call to brief Republican staffers on the funding portion of the plan Friday morning, one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to comment publicly.

Administration officials have also encouraged vocal Trump Hill allies such as House Freedom Caucus founder Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to go on TV to sell the plan to voters. On a call with Trump surrogates on Friday morning, White House Director of Strategic Communications Mercedes Schlapp and Deputy OMB Director Russ Vought vowed that Trump would “absolutely veto” any resolution of disapproval, while predicting that it will “shock” people to see how quickly the administration will build a wall.

Trump campaign officials believe the emergency declaration will bolster the president’s reelection effort. Campaign chairman Brad Parscale has presented the president with internal polling numbers purporting to show the wall is more popular than shown in public polling.

“It was a winning issue in 2016, and it’s going to be among the core issues in 2020,” said Raj Shah, a former White House spokesman who is advising the campaign, later adding: “It’s going to be: ‘Finish the wall. Elect me, or we won’t have a southern border wall.’ The wall, border security and immigration — when he’s talking about it and the subject of conversation migrates to that, it’s a good contrast for us.”

Many Senate Republicans and moderate GOP House lawmakers disagree privately, however. During a private meeting in late January, McConnell told Trump that Congress might end up passing a resolution disapproving of an emergency declaration, people with knowledge of their conversation said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.

Josh Holmes, a close McConnell confidant who formerly served as his chief of staff, downplayed the political ramifications of the emergency declaration.

“I think the battle lines are pretty well-established and pretty well-drawn-out,” Holmes said. “The political implications of that are entirely partisan and entirely predictable.”

But plenty of other GOP politicos disagree, and lawmakers in swing districts and states know they have a difficult decision to make.

“It’s an incredibly tough vote,” said Rob Collins, former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who argued a positive outcome is still possible for Republicans. “I’d be extremely nervous if I was them, to make sure that we got it right.”

In fact, some House Republicans believe Trump’s obsession with the border actually cost the party more House seats than it otherwise would have lost in the 2018 midterm elections. In a call just before Election Day, then-House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) encouraged Trump to talk more about the economy and less about immigration.

Ryan was angry about Trump saying he wanted to end birthright citizenship and told Trump it was hurting vulnerable Republicans in the suburbs, the heart of the GOP’s majority. Trump told Ryan that immigration was what brought people to the polls — and that he planned to keep talking about it.

House Republicans suffered more than 30 casualties, handing the lower chamber to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

In the Senate, Republicans next year are defending 22 Senate seats while Democrats are defending only 12. And the path to protecting the GOP’s 53-to-47 Senate majority runs through potentially competitive states such as Colorado, Arizona, Iowa and Maine.

Some of those vulnerable GOP senators up in 2020, including Tillis and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, immediately declared their opposition to Trump’s emergency declaration.

“While I agree with President Trump’s policy goal, I don’t believe in situational principles, and it’s clear what kind of rabbit hole our country can go down when we have a Democratic President who wants more government intrusion into our economy and our lives,” Tillis said in a statement.

“I think it’s a mistake on the president’s part,” Collins said Thursday. “I don’t believe that the National Emergencies Act contemplated a president repurposing billions of dollars outside of the normal appropriations process.”

But others facing election challenges in 2020 went mute, a telltale sign that Republicans know going against Trump is risky. Cornyn, a McConnell ally, has been among the most vocal opponents of a national emergency. On Friday, Cornyn’s spokesman Drew Brandewie said the senator wants to review Trump’s order before deciding where he stands on it.

Several other Republicans in the cycle in 2020 refused to say what they thought of the proposal. The offices of Cotton and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) would not weigh in or said their boss was still looking into the details. McSally’s office did not return a request for comment, though Democratic challenger Mark Kelly is already blasting Trump’s move as “political maneuvering.”

In the House, Trump’s decision has similarly divided the party. While conservatives have backed the plan, some moderate Republicans have expressed dismay.

Rep. Tom Reed, a Trump ally from New York who rarely criticizes the president, pushed back on Trump’s move, arguing that “Congress is delegated that authority, and we need to get that authority back to become a coequal branch of government.” Still, Reed, whose district went for Trump by about 15 points in 2016, said he had no intention of joining Democrats’ effort to repudiate the president.

“That resolution is going to be driven by politics,” he said.

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