WASHINGTON — Twelve Republican senators defied President Trump on Thursday, rebuffing his public and private pleas for GOP unity and voting for a resolution overturning his declaration of a national emergency at the border.
The vote marked congressional Republicans’ first significant defection from Trump in more than two years. Throughout his presidency, he has enjoyed almost universal support from his party save for a few GOP lawmakers who bucked him in big moments like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and some foreign policy issues.
But this was a rejection of Trump on his signature campaign promise. Since the day he announced his candidacy for president, Trump spoke about ending illegal immigration and building a wall along the southern border - that he originally said would be paid for by Mexico. It is the defining issue among his core supporters. ‘‘Build the wall’’ is a Trump rallying cry.
The Senate Republicans who voted to block Trump’s ability to unilaterally circumvent Congress and shift money to build his wall were swift to point out that they still supported the wall, but that they were voting to preserve the constitutional separation of powers.
‘‘To make clear, a border fence, a border barrier is a policy that I support, wholeheartedly, unequivocally,’’ said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, on the Senate floor, in announcing his support for the resolution.
Republicans had warned Trump not to declare an emergency under the National Emergencies Act to grab $3.6 billion appropriated by Congress for military construction projects nationwide to build barriers along the border.
They warned that a future Democratic president could take a policy priority like climate change and declare it a national emergency to work around the legislative branch, which holds the power to appropriate money.
‘‘Declaring a national emergency to access different funds sets a dangerous, new precedent,’’ Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a floor speech. ‘‘No president has ever used what’s called the National Emergencies Act in this way. As a result, it opens the door for future presidents to implement just about any policy they want and to take funding from other areas Congress has already decided on without Congress’ approval.’’
In addition to Lee and Portman, the Republicans voting for the resolution were: Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida, Patrick Toomey of Pennesylvania, Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Collins, Murkowski and Paul had made known their decision to oppose the president’s action a week or more before the vote, while others were noncommittal.
The GOP senators who ultimately decided to buck the president had previously noted their discomfort with what they saw as executive overreach.
‘‘Well before the president declared this national emergency, I made clear that such a declaration was ill-advised,’’ Toomey said in a statement. ‘‘The president’s emergency declaration undermines the fundamental constitutional principle of the separation of powers, and it sets a dangerous precedent that future presidents could use to advance controversial policies.’’
The most surprising was Blunt, the only member of GOP leadership to vote against Trump. He, like his colleagues, explained that it had nothing to do with the president or border security, but rather protecting the institution of Congress from future presidents.
Notably, of the GOP senators up for reelection in 2020 who could be vulnerable, just Collins voted against Trump. Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Thom Tillis of North Carolina ended up siding with the president.
‘‘It should never have come to this, but in the absence of congressional action, the President did what Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer refused to do,’’ Gardner said.
Tillis had previously stated he would support the resolution, but he flipped under intense pressure from the White House and fear of a primary challenge from the right.
In a commentary in The Washington Post on Feb. 25, Tillis had written: ‘‘As a U.S. senator, I cannot justify providing the executive with more ways to bypass Congress. As a conservative, I cannot endorse a precedent that I know future left-wing presidents will exploit to advance radical policies that will erode economic and individual freedoms.’’
But in a floor speech explaining his reversal, Tillis said he would vote against the resolution in hopes of facilitating future debate around what constitutes an emergency actions.
‘‘My main concern with this executive action is future potential abuses,’’ Tillis said. ‘‘I have a concern with the executive action that the president took, the emergency order, that’s why I voiced it. But I’m sympathetic to what he was trying to do.’’
Also standing with Trump were GOP Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, and Ted Cruz of Texas, who had made a last-ditch effort to get Trump to work out a compromise in an unplanned visit to the White House Wednesday night.
Sasse, a self-described ‘‘constitutional conservative,’’ blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for the ‘‘politically motivated resolution’’ and urged Senate leaders to change the law that allowed Trump to declare the emergency.