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Trump administration seeks GOP support on border wall as senators confront hard choices

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) walks through the U.S. Capitol rotunda on Tuesday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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The Trump administration privately appealed to Republican senators on Tuesday to stand with President Trump on his controversial wall, painting a picture of a U.S.-Mexico border crisis to persuade undecided GOP lawmakers to back his emergency declaration in a highly anticipated vote next week.

Yet many GOP senators weighing a vote on nullifying Trump’s national emergency are being confronted with a difficult choice: Buck their president and potentially draw the wrath of core Republican voters, or support Trump’s controversial declaration for a wall that remains unpopular with the broader public. 

The potential consequences are more acute for GOP senators up for reelection next year, particularly those in Democratic-leaning or swing states who may need to create some distance from Trump yet could invite political challenges from the right should they vote for a disapproval resolution. 

Some of the GOP senators who have said they will support the resolution — including Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) — have made their case for the separation of powers and the need to protect congressional prerogative, particularly deciding how taxpayer money is spent. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says a resolution to end President Trump's border emergency declaration has the votes to pass the Senate. (Video: Reuters)

“There are some people that think any time you take exception to the position the president may have taken, you’re being disloyal. I don’t believe that,” Tillis said in an interview Tuesday. “I’ve had a great discussion with the White House in the past week or so. They understand that I know there’s a crisis at the border.” 

Tillis added: “It’s never a tough vote for me when I’m standing on principle.”

But the Senate vote to disapprove Trump’s emergency declaration is among the first in what may be several over the next two years that will force GOP senators up in November 2020 to balance their allegiance to Trump’s agenda while exercising independence from him when politically necessary. 

This vote also comes on the highly charged issue of immigration and Trump’s signature campaign promise of a border wall, although he repeatedly said during his 2016 presidential campaign that Mexico would pay for it. Trump has recently warned that Republicans who defy him on the national emergency will “put themselves at great jeopardy.”

Arguing Trump’s case on Tuesday was Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who met behind closed doors with Republican senators. Her meeting came a day after Zach Parkinson, White House deputy director of government communications, told Republican staffers that senators should “keep their powder dry” ahead of the vote as the administration labored to limit defections. Vice President Pence met with senators last week.

White House works to limit GOP defections, criticism ahead of vote to nullify Trump’s emergency declaration

“If I voted to disapprove it, it would basically say I am not for what the president is trying to accomplish at the border — which I am for,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a former member of leadership who is up for reelection next year. He initially urged Trump against declaring a national emergency but has since said he would vote against the disapproval measure because the president has the authority to act.

Trump declared the emergency on Feb. 15 to try to tap $3.6 billion allocated for military construction projects. The administration is also accessing $601 million from a forfeiture fund in the Treasury Department and $2.5 billion from a Pentagon counterdrug account, which they can do without an emergency declaration.

All 47 Democratic senators have been united against Trump’s emergency declaration, meaning just four Senate Republicans have to vote in favor of the disapproval measure for it to pass in the Senate, because the resolution needs just a simple majority. Collins, Tillis, and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have declared support for the resolution, with Paul predicting more GOP senators will join them. 

Despite the likelihood of an embarrassing rebuke for Trump, neither the House nor the Senate is expected to muster enough votes to override an expected veto.

Republican leaders have largely been hands off as individual senators weigh their choices. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has mostly focused on providing senators the information they need in advance of the vote, rather than twisting arms. 

“Each of our members is going to be casting a vote that they believe is right,” said Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

But inside party lunches, particularly on Tuesday, the administration has made the hard sell to senators by depicting a crisis at the border — underscored by the release of statistics Tuesday that show the number of people apprehended at the southern border spiked an additional 31 percent last month.

Family migration, already at record levels, rocketed to new high in February

Nielsen described the influx of unaccompanied minors and migrant families at the border and tied it to the administration’s case for constructing additional barriers, according to senators who attended the lunch and others briefed on it. 

She stressed that the emergency declaration was necessary and while the administration expected legal challenges, that was still not a reason to abandon the declaration, according to an official familiar with her presentation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. 

But Trump’s border wall — and his chosen method to tap money for it — remains broadly unpopular in public polling. 

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found 60 percent of the public opposes Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency to build his wall, while 39 percent back it. 

The wall’s popularity fluctuates among various states. In Iowa, a perennial presidential swing state which will also host a likely competitive Senate race, a recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll found an increase in support for building a wall “no matter what else is happening with immigration policy” from 30 percent a year ago to 37 percent in February.

“I’m leaning toward supporting the president. I do think we have a humanitarian crisis,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who is on the ballot next November, said Tuesday. “So many people I hear from say, ‘Build that wall. Support the president.’ ” 

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is up for reelection next year in a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, declined on Tuesday to say how he would vote on the disapproval resolution. He stressed his decision would be independent of political considerations: “I get asked if I walk the dog more because of my reelection. I do what’s right for the country, the Constitution and Colorado.”

But one of his potential Democratic challengers made it clear in an interview Tuesday that Gardner’s vote could pose a political liability. 

“I think Coloradans are clear that they do not see this as the emergency that matters in this country,” said Mike Johnston, a former state senator who announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in January. He called Trump’s emergency declaration “clearly unconstitutional.”

Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who was appointed to her seat in December and will have to run in 2020 to serve out the rest of the late senator John McCain’s term, also says she is still deciding. But the former Air Force fighter pilot has proactively sought to protect military construction projects in her home state by seeking assurances from Pence and acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan that such projects won’t be affected. 

Senate GOP leaders have given conflicting answers about how many military construction projects would be protected from the emergency declaration, although Republicans have said money for such projects could be “backfilled” at a later time. McSally’s potential Democratic challenger, astronaut Mark Kelly, has called the emergency declaration “Washington at its worst.” 

“Republicans like Susan Collins, Thom Tillis and Cory Gardner vote with President Trump more than 90 percent of the time, and if they dip a toe out of line they get steamrolled by the Republican base,” said Lauren Passalacqua, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “These politicians say one thing then do another and keep showing the moderate voters who decide elections why they can’t be trusted.”

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who is up for reelection in conservative Alabama, is backing the resolution despite Trump’s popularity in his home state, as well as strong support for the wall. A VoteCast midterm election poll conducted by Fox News and the Associated Press found that while support nationally for the wall hovered around 47 percent (with Iowa and Colorado showing similar figures), about 60 percent of midterm election voters in Alabama surveyed in the poll backed the wall. 

“I’m sure there would be people that would prefer me vote the other way,” Jones said Tuesday. “But I think there’s a lot of people that recognize that there are serious constitutional issues and that it’s a slippery slope.” 

The constitutional argument made by Jones is one that is shared by other undecided Republican senators such as Paul, who declared his support for the disapproval resolution over the weekend, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who remains publicly undecided. 

Nonetheless, conservative activists say getting Trump’s wall built is what ultimately matters for the base. 

“My strong advice to all parties involved — but in this case, especially Republican members of the Senate — is to do the right thing,” said Ken Blackwell of the Family Research Council, who has met privately with Trump over the border issue. “It’s clear as it relates to border security, the narrow issue of border security, this is a no-brainer for the base.” 

Scott Clement contributed to this report. 

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