The White House is privately negotiating with Senate Republicans who want to rein in the emergency powers of President Trump and his successors — which could lead to the surprise defeat of a Democratic resolution rejecting Trump’s emergency declaration at the border.
That would mark a dramatic change in fortunes for Trump, who had been on track for an embarrassing defeat later this week in the GOP-controlled Senate in a confrontation with Congress over Trump’s border wall.
Key to quelling the GOP revolt is legislation drafted by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that tries to claw back some emergency powers to Congress and whether the White House endorses some version of it. That would give Republicans who are uneasy about the constitutionality of the Feb. 15 declaration — yet nervous about publicly rebuking Trump — some political cover to side with the president.
Although four Republican senators have already announced they will vote to nullify the president’s emergency declaration, one of them — Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.) — publicly indicated Tuesday after a private meeting with Vice President Pence that he could change his position if the administration and senators strike a deal on revising the National Emergencies Act. That would be enough to kill the resolution in the Senate, provided no other GOP senators oppose Trump’s declaration or alter their position.
Any vote to revise the emergency law is expected to be independent of the vote on the disapproval resolution, which has already passed the House and is expected to be put to a vote Thursday in the Senate.
“I know the concern that I have and that most Republicans have is that the Congress has ceded too much authority to the president — not just this president, but any president,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who also attended the private meeting Tuesday with Pence at the Capitol. “We’re looking for ways to get the power back where it constitutionally belongs.”
Much of the recent back-and-forth between the White House and Senate Republicans has centered on amending the 1976 emergency law that GOP lawmakers have criticized as granting too much power to the executive branch, even as they remain wary about crossing Trump.
Many Senate Republicans have started to align behind Lee’s proposal, which would amend the National Emergencies Act to say an emergency declaration would automatically expire after 30 days unless both chambers of Congress affirmatively vote to keep it.
“Standing up for the separation of powers is important,” Lee said Tuesday. “Over the last 80 years, Congress has voluntarily relinquished a whole lot of legislative power, handed it over to the executive branch. We’ve seen it in regulatory policy, we’ve seen it in trade policy, we’ve seen it in war powers, and we’ve seen it in emergency powers. And that’s not even an exhaustive list.”
But the White House, in private, had been skeptical of the effort and has proposed some changes to lessen its impact, according to senators and other officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
One possible way to amend it more to the White House’s liking is to make that 30-day period in Lee’s proposal longer. In the Tuesday meeting with Republicans, Pence floated the prospect of revising the 30-day period to 30 legislative days, which could considerably drag out that timeline, according to one official familiar with the discussions.
Still, the White House has been more focused on doing what it can to limit GOP defections and ensuring the number of senators who oppose Trump does not reach anywhere near the two-thirds majority to override an expected veto by Trump. The White House nonetheless views the chaos as a mess of senators’ own making, one senior administration official said.