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Trump Faces Twin Rebukes From Congress With GOP Defections

Justin Sink

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump is facing a double-barreled rebuke from Congress this week, setting up the first vetoes of his administration and showing cracks in his ability to maintain unity among Republican lawmakers.

The first blow came Wednesday evening when the GOP-controlled Senate passed a measure rejecting U.S. military support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. Now, senators are poised to reject on Thursday Trump’s declaration of an emergency on the southern border.

The reprimands -- both requiring defections from Republican ranks -- come as Trump seeks to consolidate the party’s support ahead of what promises to be a tough fight for re-election in 2020. They also underscore the consequences of a midterm election that left Democrats in control of the House and GOP lawmakers unable to shield the president from legislation he opposed.

While Republicans in Congress have occasionally criticized the administration, the two measures this week mark the first instances in which party leaders haven’t been able to stop bills that embarrass Trump.

The Yemen legislation, which is likely to pass the House in coming weeks, picked up support beginning late last year when Trump defended Saudi Arabia after columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. On the emergency declaration, which already cleared the House, some GOP lawmakers have said the move interferes with their authority to determine how tax dollars should be spent.

Trump said on Twitter Thursday that he was prepared to veto the resolution that would cancel his national emergency. He contended that legal scholars have said the declaration was authorized by Congress.

"If, at a later date, Congress wants to update the law, I will support those efforts, but today’s issue is BORDER SECURITY and Crime!!!" Trump said.

Trump was able to avoid a full-scale rebellion by GOP lawmakers that would allow a veto override. That means Trump -- barring separate legal challenges -- should be able to move forward both with his efforts to redirect funding to the construction of the border wall and arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Maintaining that hold over his party will be crucial as Trump continues to engage in high-stakes negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who demonstrated during the recent 35-day government shutdown her ability to hold Democrats in line despite high political risk.

The vetoes offer a political stress test of Trump’s use of executive authority -- an approach he employed when his party fully controlled Congress. That’s only expected to increase as the president is confronted with a divided government.

Minimizing public rebukes from his own party is especially important as Trump faces a 2020 campaign in which his Democratic challenger seems certain to paint his presidency as a model of ineffective governance by an extremist and novice. White House officials have adopted a dual-track approach to keep the this week’s votes from snowballing into a broader problem.

On Capitol Hill, top administration officials including Vice President Mike Pence, met with Republican senators who were considering a vote to disapprove of Trump’s use of emergency powers. The meeting, requested by Thom Tillis of North Carolina -- a Republican who initially said he’d vote against Trump’s declaration -- included discussion of separate legislation that would restrict presidents’ ability to use emergency declarations in the future.

Six other Republicans have said they’ll vote to cancel the declaration, including two who announced their plans on Thursday: Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Mitt Romney of Utah.

Lawmakers were invited to the White House on Wednesday to present their proposal to the president. But the Senate sponsor of the proposal, Mike Lee of Utah, said he didn’t see a path forward.

Tillis is a relative outlier among Republicans who will run with Trump in 2020. He is among a group of just four Republican senators among the 22 up for re-election this cycle who come from a state Trump lost or failed to win by more than five percentage points.

Trump himself highlighted the political implications in a series of tweets and comments on Wednesday, and argued Republican senators were “overthinking tomorrow’s vote.”

“I told Republican senators, vote any way you want. Vote how you feel good. But I think it’s bad for a Republican senator,” Trump said.

Separately, administration officials have publicly downplayed the consequences of the resolution.

“It’s astonishing to me that people are making this into a big deal,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday on Fox News.

Yet the president and his aides are acutely aware of the damage intra-party rebukes can deliver. Trump still openly bristles over Senator John McCain’s 2017 decision to vote against eliminating Obamacare, robbing the president of a top campaign pledge.

On Wednesday, Trump’s tweets indicated he was equally wary of a vote that could impede his mission on an even bigger promise: building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I said, use your own discretion, but I think it’s a bad vote if they go against,” Trump said. “I think anybody going against border security, drug trafficking, human trafficking, that’s a bad vote.”

(Updates with GOP senators voting for declaration in 13th paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Justin Sink in Washington at jsink1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Joshua Gallu, Laurie Asséo

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