This week, Senate Republicans served President Donald Trump the first two resolutions he’s likely to veto – one rescinding his national emergency declaration to build the border wall, (which he vetoed on Friday afternoon), the other on cutting assistance to the Saudis’ war in Yemen.
The breaking of ranks naturally prompted speculation about GOP allegiance to Trump and whether it signals some sort of shift away from him by congressional Republicans.
Bucking the President on his signature issue is certainly a big deal. But a deeper examination of both the numbers and the politics indicates that the GOP remains firmly in Trump’s grip. If anything, given the constitutional rhetoric of elected Republicans, the President might have had a true revolt on his hands. Instead, he was given an effective slap on the wrist by a small fraction of Republican lawmakers.
Of the 250 Republicans in Congress (197 in the House, 53 in the Senate) only 10% broke ranks with the President on the national emergency resolution. After 13 Republicans in the House joined Democrats to pass the resolution last month, a dozen Republican senators ended up breaking ranks this week to send it to the President’s desk. Even fewer Republicans – just seven senators – crossed Trump and voted Wednesday for the resolution directing the removal of US forces from Yemen without a war authorization from Congress.
This isn’t the first time Trump has faced resistance from the upper chamber on issues like trade and foreign policy. But is it the beginnings of a GOP revolt?
“I think 12 is significant,” said Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the RNC and a CNN contributor. “I don’t think it’s a watershed moment.”
It’s notable which Republicans were willing to vote against the President. Half of the Republican senators who voted for the emergency declaration – which redirects funds intended for other uses to build the border wall – sit on the Appropriations Committee. And 11 are not running for re-election and facing the threat of a primary challenge in 2020. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is unlikely to lose the GOP nomination, and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has already announced he won’t be seeking another term next year.
But what kept 90% of Republicans in the fold was the fact that this resolution would have been a rebuke of the President’s signature domestic issue: the wall on the southern border.
“If this were a different issue, it would have been higher,” Heye said. “But it’s about the wall.”
And crossing Trump may pose a significant risk for elected Republicans.
Constitutional conservatives face political reality
Sen. Thom Tillis, who is up for re-election in 2020, had been the public face for the group of Republican senators resisting Trump on the declaration, even going so far as to write an op-ed in the Washington Post in February defending his decision to vote for the resolution on principles of constitutionalism.
Nevertheless, Tillis had been signaling all week that he was willing to reverse himself, which is exactly what he did just before Thursday’s vote. “A lot has changed in the last three weeks,” he said in a floor speech just before voting against the resolution. “I think we have to recognize that we have a crisis at the borders.”
Tillis came close at times to offering a fulsome rationale for why this particular use of the executive’s emergency powers passed a constitutional bar. In the end, Tillis only cited the President’s new interest in legislation to limit future uses of that power as his reason for changing his mind.
According to a White House official, Vice President Mike Pence called Tillis Thursday and helped convince him to switch his vote. And a top Republican official in Tillis’s state of North Carolina indicated there may have been a raw political reason behind Tillis’s change, telling CNN the senator was coming under tremendous pressure at home to remain loyal to Trump.
Tillis’ office denies that politics had anything to do with his change of heart.
“Senator Tillis never had a discussion about a primary or election with any White House officials, and he had many discussions with the Vice President and senior staff over the last several weeks,” said Daniel Keylin, a spokesman for Tillis.
A political calculation may have also occurred to Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who is also up for re-election next year. Sasse has been an outspoken critic of Trump since before the 2016 election, and he faced some backlash from the state party for his opposition to Trump’s candidacy. Recently Sasse even said he regularly considers leaving the Republican Party over the chaos from the White House.
But Sasse voted against the resolution, even as he issued a statement saying lawmakers should be “systematically reclaiming powers Congress has been imprudently granting to presidents of both parties for far too long.” A spokesman for Sasse did not respond for a request for comment.
The parliamentary-like unity of the House Republican conference was on display as well. Even Trump skeptics like Adam Kinzinger, Martha Roby and Dan Crenshaw hung together with their fellow Republicans and opposed the resolution.
Still the Grand Trump Party
Two years into his presidency, Trump has essentially remade the Republican party in his own image. He’s pushed conservatives into territory they’ve long resisted, including protectionist trade policies and a more isolationist foreign policy.
And looking ahead to 2020, it’s even more clear the GOP belongs to Trump. The Republican National Committee has essentially merged with Trump’s re-election campaign for 2020. At its winter meeting the RNC voted to give its “undivided support for President Donald J. Trump and his effective Presidency.” Asked last month about the potential for primary challengers to Trump, RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said possible candidates “have the right to jump in and lose.”
And the number that speaks the loudest to elected Republicans is this: The most recent Gallup poll found 90% of self-identified Republicans approve of the job Trump is doing as President.
CNN’s Jim Acosta contributed to this report.