Opinion writer

As we noted earlier, Senate Republicans have been searching for a way out of a very difficult jam. They will be forced to vote Thursday on President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency. Yet, with four of them apparently ready to vote to terminate the emergency, this will mean Trump would have to veto the measure, enraging both the president and his voters.

So Republicans hit on a preposterously absurd scheme, in which they would vote on a measure that would place limits on future national emergencies — by requiring regular congressional votes to keep them going — without placing any limits on this particular one. This was supposed to give cover to Republicans, enabling them to stand with Trump’s national emergency while creating the impression that they are generally concerned by the issues raised by the president’s abuse of power.

But it now turns out that Trump is killing this effort, too. As Politico reported on Wednesday:

President Donald Trump scuttled a final effort by Senate Republicans to avoid an intraparty clash on his emergency declaration this week, a move that could juice the number of GOP senators that vote to rebuke Trump on the floor.

The president delivered the news in a phone call to Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) during a Republican lunch on Wednesday, according to three people familiar with the call. Trump told the Utah senator that he would not be able to endorse Lee’s effort to change the National Emergencies Act to require congressional approval of emergency declarations — derailing a push by Republicans to find some way out of a confrontation with the president. . . .

Republicans wanted Trump to endorse it and then would consider standing with him on the disapproval vote. It’s unclear whether that compromise would have caused the disapproval vote to fail, but it had the potential to significantly scale back defections.

Senate Republicans will now be forced to vote Thursday on the resolution terminating Trump’s national emergency because the House passed one recently, and under the law, the Senate is required to act on it. And Republicans will not be able to vote to limit national emergencies later, to give themselves political protection from Thursday’s vote.

To be clear on what just happened here, Republicans tried to come up with a way to give Trump the national emergency he wants, while also giving themselves a way to mitigate the political damage from it. And this does have the potential to be damaging: A new Politico/Morning Consult poll finds that only 38 percent of Americans favor the emergency declaration, while 52 percent oppose it. Independents oppose it by a 27-point margin (57 percent disapprove to 30 percent approve), and 46 percent of independents say they would be less likely to vote for a lawmaker who backs Trump on this.

That means senators up for reelection have to think about this vote. As Tyler Sinclair, Morning Consult’s vice president, puts it: “Backing Trump’s national emergency declaration could be politically toxic for senators up for reelection bids in 2020.”

It’s probably not an accident that two of the four Republican senators who are prepared to vote to terminate Trump’s national emergency — Susan Collins of Maine and Thom Tillis of North Carolina — are up for reelection next year. The effort to create an escape hatch, as ham-handed as it was, appeared designed to give Tillis a way to vote against terminating it. And it appeared to be close to working: Tillis was reportedly thinking of changing his position, which would sink the termination measure, avoiding a veto.

Yet Trump has now pulled away the football. It’s not clear why the president opposes the compromise measure; one reasonable guess is that he doesn’t want any limits on his future use of emergency powers.

But whatever the motive, consider the plight of poor Tillis. Last month, he put out a lengthy statement expressing grave concern about how Trump’s national emergency would further damage the separation of powers (Trump’s declaration came explicitly because Congress wouldn’t hand over funding for his border wall) and aggrandize executive power.

After this expression of extreme seriousness, Tillis was prepared to support an escape-hatch measure that would put limits on national emergencies (which in itself is a good thing), yet at the same time would literally exempt this national emergency from those limits. In effect, this would have amounted to a straight up declaration that Trump is abusing his power — yet he should be permitted to get away with it just this once. But Trump killed the effort.

All of this is moot, in a way, because even if the Senate does vote to terminate Trump’s national emergency, he’ll veto that, and the veto won’t get overridden. And many Republican senators will be just fine with this — all but four are set to vote against terminating it — because they simply don’t see any problem with Trump exercising national-emergency powers to circumvent them based on an invented rationale. They think Trump should do this.

Still, you’d think this affair would be chastening to senators such as Tillis (and any others who had real concerns about what Trump is doing). They had tried to conjure a clever way to give Trump what he wants while (minimally) protecting themselves from the stain of it all. Yet Trump wouldn’t even let them do that. The result is that for a senator such as Tillis, this latest turn undercuts the seriousness he had hoped to project all along.

Read more:

Sen. James Inhofe: Why I support the president’s national emergency

Greg Sargent: Another craven GOP surrender to Trump’s anger and bullying

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The real national emergency is the triviality of our politics

Jennifer Rubin: There’s an emergency — and it’s Trump’s power grab