A rebuke to the president

A rebuke to the president

FOR the first two years of his presidency, Donald Trump sat atop a unified government. Congress did not always do his bidding, but it threw up few roadblocks and conducted little meaningful oversight. That changed when Democrats took power in the House two months ago. Since seizing the gavel, Democratic-controlled committees have been furiously firing off subpoenas and holding hearings. But at least the White House could count on a Republican-controlled Senate. When the House passed a sweeping (if unconstitutional) election-reform bill on party lines, Mitch McConnell, the Senate leader, refused to bring it forward for a vote. Asked why, he gave his little grin and said, “Because I get to decide what we vote on.” 

But that is not always true. On February 26th, House Democrats voted to block Mr Trump’s declaration of an emergency at the southern border. The declaration allowed him access to funds for his wall, which Congress declined to provide. Democrats believed, not without reason, that Mr Trump’s declaration undermined both the separation of powers and Congress’s constitutionally mandated power of the purse. 

Because they introduced the measure as a privileged resolution, by law the Senate had to vote on it within 18 days. The vote took place on March 14th. Despite Mr Trump’s Twitter exhortations (“A vote for today’s resolution by Republican Senators is a vote for Nancy Pelosi, Crime, and the Open Border Democrats!”), 12 Republicans crossed party lines. Fully 59 senators called for an end to Mr Trump’s declaration. The line-crossers included not just those usually found near the political centre, such as Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, or habitual sceptics of executive power, such as Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah. Also making a stand against the imperial presidency were generally reliable supporters of Mr Trump’s from conservative states, such as Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Jerry Moran of Kansas, who could well face primary challenges from the right.

The outcome was unsurprising, because enough Republicans had made their positions clear in advance to suggest a rebuke for Mr Trump was likely. The scale of the defeat was unexpected, though. The day before the vote a group of Republican senators, led by Mr Lee, offered Mr Trump a face-saving compromise. They would support Mr Trump’s emergency declaration this time, in exchange for his supporting a measure that would terminate all future emergency declarations after 30 days, absent congressional approval. Mr Trump refused.

The president took to Twitter soon after the vote, thundering, “I look forward to VETOING the just passed Democrat inspired Resolution which would OPEN BORDERS while increasing Crime, Drugs and Trafficking in our country.” It would do no such thing: immigrants commit crime at lower rates than the native-born; drugs come primarily through the post and via ports of entry; and some more fencing will make the border no less open or closed. The president will soon issue his first veto. Without further Senate defections, he will survive an attempt to override that veto (which requires 67 senators). America’s political system is back where it started: once again waiting for the courts to deliver the final word on Mr Trump’s wall.

Up until this point, the Trump presidency has been marked by a reluctance of Republican members of Congress to break with the president (what they said in private was a different matter). But this vote was the president’s third congressional defeat in two days. On March 13th the Senate voted for a second time to end American military aid to Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen. A few hours before the Senate’s emergency vote, the House voted 420-0 for a resolution urging the Justice Department to make Robert Mueller’s report public, when it eventually appears. None of these three votes legally compel the president to change his policies. But together they send a signal: Republicans are a little bit braver. And the days of a supine legislature are over.

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