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House Republicans defend their votes on Trump's emergency declaration

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., speaks to WTVC from Capitol Hill on Feb. 27, 2019. (WTVC)
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., speaks to WTVC from Capitol Hill on Feb. 27, 2019. (WTVC)
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Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., acknowledged Wednesday it is “unlikely” the Republican-led Senate will pass a resolution opposing President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border with a majority large enough to overcome a promised veto, but the vote would still send a significant message to the president and the public.

“Realize how rare it is for Congress, potentially both a House under Democratic leadership and a Senate under Republican leadership, to say, ‘You are abusing the powers of the presidency. You are trying to run this country like a dictator,’” Merkley said.

House Democrats passed the resolution Tuesday night with the backing of 13 Republicans. It would reverse the emergency declaration President Trump intends to use to transfer more than $2 billion appropriated for military construction to pay for border fencing. No date has been set for the Senate vote, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he expects a vote by March 18.

Three Senate Republicans—Thom Tillis, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowksi—have said they intend to vote with Democrats to terminate the emergency declaration. One more would give Democrats the majority needed to pass the resolution, but a two-thirds supermajority would be necessary to override Trump’s inevitable veto.

House Republicans who came down on different sides of the vote Tuesday said their personal experiences and those of their colleagues guided their decisions.

“I saw the border being literally overrun with a tremendous amount of people coming in,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., who visited the border recently. “We need to look at this as a national crisis, as a humanitarian crisis.”

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., said fellow Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who flew surveillance missions over the border with the Wisconsin Air National Guard last week, convinced him the situation truly is an emergency.

“He said this isn’t about immigration,” Davis said. “This is about drugs like fentanyl and meth that he and his units helped to stop and interdict. He said it’s an emergency. He was there. He’s one that’s a very common sense member of Congress that I’m sure had the same doubts I had and when he came back he was more sure the national emergency needed to be declared.”

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, whose district includes 800 miles of the border, emphasized investment in other security measures over the wall the president has demanded. He cited conversations with law enforcement officials and his own background in the CIA to explain why he is so focused on technological solutions and why he voted with Democrats to pass the resolution.

“I have more border than any member of Congress, I have more Border Patrol than any member of Congress, and I have spent a decade of my life chasing bad guys all across the world,” Hurd said.

Even GOP lawmakers who decided to vote against the resolution raised some concerns about President Trump’s use of an emergency declaration to use funds for purposes not intended by Congress. Fleischmann said he originally opposed the declaration, but he looked up the constitutional precedent for it and now believes Trump has the authority to do this under legislation passed in 1976.

“Obviously, as an appropriator and as a member of the House, I prefer the solutions come from the legislative body,” Fleischmann said. “If we’re going to complain about this type of activity, then I think what we need to do is go back and look at the 1976 statute and possibly revise it.”

Trump made the national emergency declaration after Democrats in Congress refused to authorize $5.7 billion for border wall construction in 2019. Fleischmann and other Republican negotiators secured almost $1.4 billion for new fencing, but Trump is now trying to obtain the rest from other departments with methods critics say overstep the limits of his powers.

Fleischmann pointed to the approximately 60 times other presidents have issued emergency declarations, about half of which are currently still in effect. However, critics in both parties say none of those instances are directly comparable to Trump using a dubious emergency claim to obtain funds he requested that Congress had specifically chosen not to appropriate.

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“This is a constitutional issue,” Hurd said. “Congress is the one invested with the power of the purse and Congress should protect that power.”

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