Congressional Republicans who voted to rebuke President Donald Trump’s national emergency to build a wall along the southern border could find themselves politically vulnerable with the president’s base and face an increasingly irate Trump who has vowed to veto the resolution that knocks his signature issue.
The Senate voted 59–41 on Thursday in favor of a Democrat-led resolution aimed at rejecting the national emergency. Twelve Republicans joined the Democrats to push it over the edge, despite the lobbying effort in recent days from Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and White House staff. In February, the Democrat-controlled House passed the same resolution with a vote of 245–182, with 13 Republicans jumping in to vote with Democrats.
Those Republicans are now hoping the president, who has backed primary challengers against lawmakers who oppose his agenda, makes a distinction between a philosophical vote hinged on constitutional concerns and a political vote aimed at appeasing moderate voters over him.
Trump's immediate response was one word, all caps.
“I’ll say this: I have two types of responses from what I would call my base,” Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, who voted to disapprove of the national emergency, told BuzzFeed News. “One response is, ‘We know you’re principled. We understand this. This is not inconsistent with other votes you’ve taken.’ But I’m receiving a lot of responses from people who feel like I voted against the president, and they don’t want to hear my explanation.”
Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican who voted with Trump, said after the vote, “There were more people who voted against the president than I thought would vote against the president.”
"In terms of the political implications, there will be some and we’ll find out pretty soon what they are,” he added.
Not long after House Democrats announced their plan to try to block Trump’s unprecedented use of a national emergency to attempt to build a border wall, it became clear that the expansion of presidential power caused enough unease among Republicans that the resolution would pass even in the Senate, where its future was initially uncertain. The president has said he will veto the resolution, and it’s unlikely there is a veto-proof majority in Congress to follow, but the vote will put some Republicans in a tough place nonetheless.
After seeing Republicans in moderate districts get wiped out in the midterm elections, more might be willing to buck Trump if it “puts their careers in jeopardy,” said a former White House official. But Trump’s “mercurial” temperament during the last election is also giving Republicans, who were taken aback when Trump backed a challenger to then–Rep. Mark Sanford only to lose the seat to a Democrat, some pause.
“Trump would rather lose a seat than have someone who only supports him 95% of the time,” the former official said.
For his part, Trump said on Twitter that a vote for the resolution would be one for “for Nancy Pelosi, Crime, and the Open Border Democrats” and previously said that Republicans were “overthinking” their vote.
“I think it’s going to be a great election issue," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office Thursday, after claiming that scholars had found his resolution "totally constitutional." "It’s pure and simple, it’s a vote for border security, it’s a vote for no crime.”
The coalition of Republicans coming out against the president is a broad spectrum: from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Utah Sen. Mike Lee, seen as being purely motivated by a libertarian, small-government ideology, to Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate and perennial swing vote.
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, who is up for reelection in 2020 in a Trump-won state, had planned to vote in favor of the resolution — he was so opposed to the president’s maneuver that he wrote a Washington Post op-ed about his position. But just before the vote, he said he changed his mind and voted with Trump, saying "the White House has been very gracious" in talking through his concerns about the use of national emergency declarations.
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, up for reelection in 2020 in a state Democrats did well in in 2018, ultimately voted with the president after days of deliberations, saying "it should never have come to this" but that Trump did what he had to do to get past Democratic opposition.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who had previously expressed discomfort with the president’s national emergency, announced Thursday ahead of the vote he would be voting against the president. Alexander is not running for reelection and doesn’t have to worry about potential challenge from the right.
“I think the president knows there are two types of people voting against the emergency declaration … He understands that people like myself and Rand are taking principled votes, but I think he also understands there are members of Congress in the Senate who are not supportive of the wall and are not supportive of the president’s policies, or are just afraid of losing their next election,” Massie said.
“Hopefully, he’ll give some of us a pass on this.”
Even some of the Republicans who voted against the president were careful to praise him Thursday. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who is not up for reelection until 2022, said before the vote he didn’t know if votes for the resolution would open the door to a Trump-backed primary challenge, but that Trump has been “very reasonable and been entirely decent even on areas when we’ve discussed issues where we disagree.”
The way the president and his supporters will view those who voted against him will likely be on a "case-by-case basis," said a source close to the administration, who added that elected officials in states and districts Trump carried — who aren't named Sen. Rand Paul or Mike Lee — could face political repercussions.
"Do Republican voters believe you're doing it for actual, thoughtful reasons or to virtue signal to the left?" the source said.
Sen. John Cornyn, asked if the vote would damage the working relationship between the president and Republicans in Congress, said, "No. We need each other. That overcomes hurt feelings every time."
Paul said he talked to the president this week and isn't too worried about backlash. "I don’t think he takes it personally," he said. "I think he understands people have deeply held beliefs on the constitution, on whose prerogative it is to spend money.” He acknowledged, though, that not all of his constituents will make that distinction.
“I don’t worry about the tweets on this issue. This is a constitutional issue, an oath of office issue,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who just started his term and also doesn’t immediately have to worry about a challenger, told reporters ahead of the vote. “He’s entitled to express his viewpoint of course. That’s the nature of our system.”
Sen. Cory Gardner's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.