(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Opinion writer

It looks like we’re headed for the first veto of the Trump presidency, as John Wagner reports:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) predicted Monday that a resolution seeking to block President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border would pass in the Republican-led Senate but ultimately not survive a veto.

McConnell shared his assessment with reporters in Kentucky after a fourth Republican — Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — indicated over the weekend that he would join Democrats in opposing Trump’s declaration, which the president is using in a bid to spend more on border barriers than authorized by Congress.

“I think what is clear in the Senate is that 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,” McConnell said.

Does this signal that something has genuinely changed in Washington? That Republicans are now willing to stand up to President Trump and show some spine when they know he’s doing something wrong?

No, not really.

The more important number here is not the four Republicans who say they’ll vote to rebuke the president but the 49 who won’t — a number that includes many, like Mitch McConnell himself, who have publicly expressed their opposition to his national emergency declaration but still intend to vote to uphold it.

Which sums up the position most Republicans have taken on this matter, as they have on so many other things Trump has done: a shake of the head and an expression of concern to make clear they don't approve, combined with a refusal to actually stand in Trump's way.

There are those four senators who will be voting with Democrats, but even that is less than it appears. Rand Paul is an avowed libertarian who spends a lot of time criticizing executive overreach; for him to support the president on this would seriously undermine his brand even if he didn't sincerely object to it. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are moderates who are almost always with their colleagues when it comes to substantively important votes, but look for ways to express their independence on votes that have symbolic meaning but little practical consequence. And Thom Tillis is up for reelection next year in North Carolina, a swing state. So he too has an incentive to make a show of disagreeing with Trump when the ultimate outcome will be the same either way.

Those four are all we get, despite the fact that contradicting Trump on the emergency declaration is demanded by a principle that so many Republicans profess to believe in: that the president's powers are limited and he certainly shouldn't be allowed to just declare an emergency if Congress refuses to do what he wants. And despite the fact that for two years when they had complete control of Congress, Republicans didn't give Trump funding for his wall, because many if not most of them thought it was ridiculous.

But as politicians they're also governed by fear, which for most of them means fear of the Republican base. When Trump brought this issue to a head by shutting down the government and then making the emergency declaration, it forced them to do something they hadn't had to do before: take a vote that some future primary opponent could use against them by running an ad saying, "Your senator voted against President Trump and against a border wall!" We saw how many of them are willing to do that.

If the president is worried that he'll be getting more rebukes from Republicans in the remaining 22 months of his term, he can probably rest easy. Except for a few who need to run in swing states, most of them aren't eager to contradict him. And McConnell will make sure that bills that present such a threat won't ever reach the floor (he had no choice in this case, since a feature of the law governing national emergencies mandates a Senate vote if the bill passes the House).

I suspect that many Republicans know that when the history of this period is written, they will come out looking terrible, as a bunch of cowards who made themselves handmaidens to the most corrupt president in American history. But they have more immediate concerns, particularly survival. For most of them, that means going along with Trump pretty much no matter what he does.