With Rand Paul’s announcement Sunday that he would vote to to block President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border, we have now entered an interesting moment for Senate Republicans.
Paul is the fourth GOP senator to defect from the president’s declaration. Assuming the Democrats do as expected and hold steady against it, his decision ensures the outcome: The president will be forced to veto a congressional rebuke, and Congress will in turn almost certainly fail to override that veto.
As far as political outcomes are concerned, the president’s short-term loss and medium-term victory is all but assured. None of the undecided senators can do anything either to spare Trump the inevitable veto or, in all likelihood, to prevent Trump from proceeding with his plans to build the wall. How each senator chooses to vote, therefore, will be based almost entirely on two calculated choices: the first professional, the second optical.
The first choice will be: Can I afford to risk the wrath of Senate leadership by breaking ranks on this vote? Bear in mind that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, despite repeatedly imploring Trump not to declare the emergency while the president was mulling the strategy over, immediately threw his support behind the thing when Trump declared it anyway. For most of the GOP, this will likely be the only question that matters. Hazard my committee standings and show vote opportunities just to temporarily beat back a piece of executive overreach that most of my voters likely support? Thanks, but I’ll pass.
But that calculation matters far less to those GOP senators who have branded themselves conservative renegades, those ostensible foes of the GOP establishment who have track records of disregarding McConnell’s dictate at times when, in their judgment, he has put calculated political ends ahead of constitutional principles.
This crowd, which includes Tea Party types like Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Ron Johnson, and Marco Rubio, as well some staunch older-guard conservatives like Pat Toomey and newcomers like Marsha Blackburn, will instead grapple with a second question: Is my political brand likelier to be damaged by reneging on the rule-of-law principles that got me this far, or by opposing a president who has remade the party in his image and holds the keys to my political future?
How each of these senators chooses to answer this question will prove instructive. If even the Ted Cruzes of the world judge that their voters would rather see witless toadyism to rabble-rousing on behalf of the Constitution, the GOP may be further gone than we thought.