Congressional Republicans Caution Against Emergency Declaration for Wall Funding

Grassley: "It contravenes the power of the purse that comes from the elected representatives of the people."
February 5, 2019
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Central American immigrants wait at the U.S.-Mexico border. The migrants later turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents, seeking political asylum in the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

President Trump will deliver his delayed-by-the-shutdown State of the Union speech Tuesday night, and there is widespread speculation that he will declare a national emergency to allow for the building of a southern border wall.

Commenting on the bipartisan, bicameral group working to form a deal in Congress, Trump sounded pessimistic, saying late last week that, “We will be looking at a national emergency because I don’t think anything’s going to happen.” Asked if he was ready to announce an emergency declaration, Trump hinted that reporters would find his address to Congress “very exciting.”

Making such a declaration would theoretically let him bypass Congress altogether, but some congressional Republicans have signaled that they wouldn’t sit out a fight over emergency powers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly advised Trump against an emergency declaration in private, warning of resistance from Senate Republicans.

In public, he struck a more circumspect tone. “I’m for whatever works that would prevent the level of dysfunction we’ve seen on full display here the last month and also doesn’t bring about a view on the president’s part that he needs to declare a national emergency,” said McConnell, hinting his aversion to an emergency declaration.

The Trump administration has reportedly considered redirecting funding originally intended for the Army Corps of Engineers to provide disaster relief to for Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, and California. Some in the administration believe that as much as $13.9 billion could be rerouted from disaster relief to build a wall.

Senator Marco Rubio, whose home state of Florida would receive some of the disaster relief, recently told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, “I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think it’ll be a terrible idea. I hope he doesn’t do it. . . It’s just not a good precedent to set in terms of action. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want border security. I do. I just think that’s the wrong way to achieve it.”

The Senate Republicans’ second-in-command, Majority Whip John Thune warned, “There’s not much appetite for an emergency declaration. For a lot of reasons, our members are very wary of that.” According to CNN’s Manu Raju, Thune later added, “There are lot of reservations in the conference about that and I hope they don’t go down that path.”

Cornyn explicitly denied that he would vote to block the emergency powers during last month’s shutdown, but recently expressed suspicion about emergency powers. “The whole idea that a president—whether it’s President Trump or President Warren or President Sanders—can declare and emergency and then somehow usurp the separation of powers and get into the business of appropriating money for specific projects without Congress getting involved is a serious constitutional question,” he said.

On Fox News Sunday, Missouri Senator Roy Blunt worried about the precedent an emergency declaration would set: “I happen to agree with the president on barriers at the border and border security as an important first step, but there might be a future president that I don’t agree with that thinks something else is an emergency.”

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley echoed Blunt, saying an emergency declaration would set “a bad precedent.” He added, “It contravenes the power of the purse that comes from the elected representatives of the people,” referring to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power to raise and spend money.

In the House, the chairman of the Trump-friendly House Freedom Caucus, Mark Meadows, issued a rare criticism of the president, calling an emergency declaration a “slippery slope,” adding, “I do see the potential for national emergencies being used for every single thing that we face in the future where we can’t reach an agreement.”

Outside Capitol Hill, opposition to Trump using emergency powers has surfaced among Republican donors. Dan Eberhart, a major contributor to Republican campaigns and PACs, called the emergency power plan a “bridge too far.” Defending American norms and traditions, Eberhart observed, “Weaponing [sic] a national emergency to achieve a policy objective is usually something that happens in banana republics, not George Washington’s republic.”

Several Senators Eberhart supported have been less outspoken on the administration’s possible end-run around Congress, including Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado (Eberhart’s home state), Senator James Lankford, and Senator Kevin Cramer.

Lankford expressed opposition to an emergency declaration as a matter of efficiency. “It’ll [also] be tied up in the courts in the process. So it’s better to be able to resolve it legislatively. That’s nice and clean and simple.”

A recent Monmouth poll reports that while just 12 percent of Republicans oppose a border wall, 27 percent oppose using an emergency declaration to build it.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.