Washington • Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney of Utah were not fans of President Donald Trump declaring a national emergency, though neither will say yet whether they will vote to override his action that would siphon funds from the Pentagon to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Lee and Romney, both Republicans, are two of a handful of Republican senators who have not said if they'll vote with Democrats on a resolution to cancel the national emergency, which many experts have said is legally dubious and already the subject of several lawsuits.
Four GOP senators have already said they will join 45 Democrats and two independents in the Senate to vote for the House-led resolution. About eight, including Lee and Romney, are undecided.
Even so, the resolution has enough votes now to win in the Senate and be sent to the president's desk where Trump is expected to issue his first veto. The House, which has 235 Democrats to 197 Republicans, is likely unable to garner a two-thirds majority to override the veto.
Still, the vote puts Lee and Romney in a tough spot. They both support a physical border barrier. Yet, they may not like the president’s emergency order. Opposing it, though, would mean thumbing their noses at their party’s leader.
“Utah senators are working through a potential lose-lose situation when it comes to the president’s national emergency declaration,” said Jason Perry, the director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “Utahns are divided in their support of President Trump just as they are on the border wall. Our senators risk angering half their constituency no matter how they vote and then they risk a Twitter backlash from the president if they vote against him.”
And there could be a reason neither Lee or Romney are saying how they'll vote ahead of casting a ballot, Perry said.
“The best strategy for any elected official is to represent their constituency the best they can while mitigating backlash from the White House by not signaling their vote too early,” he said.
Lee has worked to brand himself as a constitutional authority who wants Congress to live up to its role as designed by the Founding Fathers. The Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse strings, not the president, meaning the White House can’t unilaterally take money from one pot to pay for something else without statuary authority.
When Trump announced his order, Lee said his initial assessment was that it was legal, though that wasn’t the issue.
“Congress has been ceding far too much power to the [executive branch] for decades,” Lee said. “We should use this moment as an opportunity to start taking that power back.”
The resolution could be one such opportunity, but Lee’s office says he’s still weighing his vote.
Romney, a freshman and former presidential candidate who has had an on-again-off-again relationship with Trump, has previously said that he did not want to see Trump declare a national emergency.
“I think that’s an action that would be taken in the most extreme circumstances, and, hopefully, we don’t reach that,” Romney told MSNBC before Trump took action.
After the designation, Romney’s spokeswoman Liz Johnson pointed out he wasn’t happy with the move.
“As Senator Romney expressed yesterday, he has concerns with this approach,” Johnson said. “This is a serious and complex issue that requires careful review, and he’ll be studying this in depth in the coming days and weeks.”
The Washington Post ranked the seven Republican senators most likely to buck the president on the emergency declaration and Romney came in at No. 5 most likely and Lee at the No. 4 spot.
“This could be Romney’s big moment to take a stand against the president, but, despite his critiques of the move, he has been fairly neutral in his condemnations of it,” wrote the Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz.
Lee, as noted, dislikes federal overreach as does his colleague, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has already said he will vote for the resolution against Trump’s order.
“Lee could really go either way, but if he sticks with his convictions, he will vote against the president,” Itkowitz wrote. “Lee also likens himself a constitutional purist.”
The No. 1 GOP senator likely to defect, The Post story suggests, could be Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who isn't seeking re-election.
The vote is expected next week as required under a rare, if ever-used move that forced the Senate to take action after House passage.