The Senate was a familiar holding pattern Thursday afternoon: waiting to hear whether President Trump would sign Congress’ compromise spending deal, which appropriated not nearly the amount of money he wants to build his “border wall,” before voting on it. Trump, despite hinting throughout the week that he would sign the bill and supplement its border security provisions with a smattering of additional funds later, had begun to waffle. Republican senators were literally praying Thursday for Trump sign it and avoid another calamitous government shutdown.
Around 3 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell came to the Senate floor to provide an update.
“[Trump] has indicated he is prepared to sign the bill,” McConnell said. “He will also be issuing a national emergency declaration at the same time.” In an alarming sign of how badly McConnell needed Trump to sign the bill, he also said that he would support the president’s decision to declare the national emergency. McConnell for weeks had been one of the sharpest critics of the president’s threat to declare a national emergency, knowing that it would divide Senate Republicans and set a precedent for Democrats to use such a declaration the next time they control the White House.
Trump’s strategy in declaring a national emergency would be to redirect military resources toward building a barrier on the southern border. It would be a broader option than what the White House, with a comfortable amount of Republican congressional buy-in, had been looking at earlier this week, which was to supplement the spending bill’s $1.375 billion in barrier funding with extra millions from his legally available transfer authority.
In a statement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders suggested that Trump might be invoking an all-of-the-above strategy: “President Trump will sign the government funding bill, and as he has stated before, he will also take other executive action—including a national emergency—to ensure we stop the national security and humanitarian crisis at the border.”
If Trump goes through with the emergency declaration, it will be tied up in court for years. The move will also receive push-back from some Republicans—although McConnell’s example of throwing up his arms, forgetting he ever argued against the move, and supporting the declaration is one that we should expect many more Republicans to follow. And if, somehow, it succeeds in court, national emergency declarations will become a go-to tool for future Democratic presidents who can’t get their climate change or gun control legislation through Congress.
But federal workers would be able to go to work on Monday.