Whether he’s a big believer in the Constitution or just terrified of a President Bernie Sanders with unchecked power, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis got it right Tuesday on President Trump’s so-called national emergency at the Mexican border.
North Carolina’s junior senator split from most of his fellow Republicans in Washington by announcing he would oppose Trump’s emergency declaration when a House resolution comes to the Senate floor. It was a crucial decision, because four Senate Republicans must defect for the resolution opposing Trump’s move to pass. Tillis was just the second to do so.
Tillis was so unequivocal in his Washington Post op-ed that it’s hard to imagine him wiggling out of his pledge now. If more or fewer than four Republicans oppose Trump, Tillis will surely follow through. But given his past record of being firmer with his words than his actions, it’s worth watching to see what he does if he’s the critical fourth swing vote.
Trump is exerting extraordinary executive power to try to bypass a Congress that didn’t give him the funding he wanted for his border wall. Given that there is no true national emergency, it’s likely an unconstitutional power grab. It also sets a precedent that Republicans will surely rue when a Democrat moves into the White House and declares a national emergency for something the GOP opposes.
“This is about the separation of powers and whether Congress will support or oppose a new precedent of executive power that will have major consequences,” Tillis wrote in the Post. “As a U.S. senator, I cannot justify providing the executive with more ways to bypass Congress. As a conservative, I cannot endorse a precedent that I know future left-wing presidents will exploit...”
Tillis pointed out that conservatives opposed President Obama’s executive overreach when he unilaterally imposed protections for certain undocumented immigrants in 2014. Both Trump and now-Vice President Mike Pence said at the time that Obama was overstepping his authority, with Trump saying it could be an impeachable offense. (This editorial board also said Obama should have gone through Congress.)
“There’s no intellectual honesty in now turning around and arguing that there’s an imaginary asterisk attached to executive overreach – that it’s acceptable for my party but not thy party,” Tillis wrote.
That’s an admirable consistency that we’re not seeing from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who have both flip-flopped on the question, or from Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who has not taken a stand and did not respond to a request for comment from the Observer editorial board Tuesday.
Tillis began his op-ed by fully supporting Trump’s immigration policy goals, and vowed to help secure tens of billions of dollars for border security. That’s a step back in tone from his earlier calls for bipartisan solutions to immigration reform.
It’s also surely an element of Tillis’s political calculations as he eyes his reelection campaign next year in a decidedly purple state. He wants to stand in the center when he can, such as opposing Trump’s power grab, while not alienating the conservative base. At least he’s half right.