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Why Did Ben Sasse Vote to Uphold the National Emergency?

Sen. Ben Sasse at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Nebraska GOP senator Ben Sasse has been lambasted by many of his Trump-skeptical fans in the conservative movement for voting Thursday to uphold the national emergency declared by President Trump.

A month ago, Sasse issued a statement, saying:

We absolutely have a crisis at the border, but as a Constitutional conservative I don’t want a future Democratic President unilaterally rewriting gun laws or climate policy. If we get used to presidents just declaring an emergency any time they can’t get what they want from Congress, it will be almost impossible to go back to a Constitutional system of checks and balances. Over the past decades, the legislative branch has given away too much power and the executive branch has taken too much power.

But on Thursday, he voted to uphold the emergency declaration, saying:

We have an obvious crisis at the border — everyone who takes an honest look at the spiking drug and human trafficking numbers knows this — and the President has a legal path to a rapid response under the National Emergencies Act of 1976 (NEA). I think that law is overly broad and I want to fix it, but at present Nancy Pelosi doesn’t, so I am therefore voting against her politically motivated resolution. As a constitutional conservative, I believe that the NEA currently on the books should be narrowed considerably. That’s why I’m an original sponsor of Senator Lee’s legislation, and it is why I have repeatedly gone to the White House to seek support for NEA reform.

I urge both the Majority and Minority Leaders to assist in moving this legislation through committee and quickly to the Floor for debate, negotiation, and passage through the full Senate. If this Congress is serious in its concerns about decades of executive overreach, we will devote ourselves to systematically reclaiming powers Congress has been imprudently granting to presidents of both parties for far too long. Today’s resolution doesn’t fix anything because the root problem here can’t be fixed with bare-knuckled politics but rather with a deliberate debate about the powers that Congress has been giving away and that the Executive has therefore claimed.

Sasse has not yet responded to an interview request from National Review, but a source close to the Nebraska senator provided a bit more detail about how he decided to vote to uphold the emergency.

In Sasse’s view, Thursday’s vote was a “close call” because he thinks there is a genuine emergency at the southern border and that the president has the legal authority under the National Emergencies Act to declare an emergency. “Should a president have authorities this expansive? No, not in Ben’s view,” says the source close to Sasse. “In his view, we should be tackling the underlying problem, not the symptom. Democrats have heard from many Republicans for weeks that we were willing to do that, but they didn’t want to, because it weakened the political point they wanted against this president on this issue. The White House, on the other hand, was/is relatively open to these discussions.”

On Wednesday morning, House speaker Nancy Pelosi said she’d oppose any deal brokered by Senator Mike Lee to change the National Emergencies Act while upholding Trump’s recent emergency declaration. But so too did President Trump reject any such deal on Wednesday, and when that happened Lee decided to vote in favor of terminating the emergency.

Sasse’s pointing the finger at Pelosi and arguing that the declaration was technically legal hasn’t satisfied many of his conservative allies.

Did electoral politics play a role in Sasse’s vote? Those close to him insist it didn’t, but it was hard not to notice that every senator who is up for re-election in 2020 except for one (Maine’s Susan Collins) sided with Trump. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, another senator up in 2020, recently wrote an op-ed opposing Trump’s declaration, only to change his mind at the last minute to support it. One of the twelve GOP senators who voted to disapprove of Trump’s declaration tells National Reviewthat he believes Sasse wanted to vote for the disapproval resolution but was in too much trouble with Trump’s supporters already to do so.

On the other hand, what did Sasse really gain politically from Thursday’s vote? “I can’t imagine one vote changes things too much for him” regarding a 2020 primary challenger, says one source close to the Trump White House. “Or changes the White House’s view of him to any great extent.”

While it’s not clear that the vote helps Sasse much with the president’s supporters, it has left many of Sasse’s allies disappointed. “He worked really carefully through every single argument for and against,” says another source close to Sasse. “In some ways, unlike a lot of other senators, a ‘yes’ would have been the easy vote, but he did what he thought was correct.”


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