WASHINGTON – In ways big and small, some congressional Republicans are distancing themselves from President Donald Trump – though at-risk Republicans seem more willing to stick with him as the 2020 elections approach.
Thursday brought a fairly big rebuke: The Republican-run Senate voted 59-41 to nullify Trump's national emergency declaration on border security, with a dozen GOP members voting against their president.
"VETO!" Trump tweeted just moments after the Senate recorded the vote, a day after saying that Republican opposition to the emergency declaration would be "a bad vote."
For the most part, however, Republican senators who face the toughest re-election bids next year stuck with Trump, who continues to enjoy strong support from Republican voters at large.
"It suggests that they see more electoral peril voting against the president than voting with him," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Still, the emergency declarations vote magnifies a series of lower-profile disputes between GOP lawmakers and Trump. It signals that the president could meet resistance on policy items ranging from the budget to political appointments to foreign policy initiatives.
Indeed, Trump, who hasn’t vetoed a single bill so far in his presidency, may need the veto pen more frequently in the coming months. If so many Republican were willing to buck Trump on his signature campaign issue – building a border wall – it signals more trouble ahead for him from GOP lawmakers who have until recently been reticent to cross Trump.
Scott Jennings, former adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said "some tension has existed from the beginning" between Republicans and Trump, the brash outsider businessman who basically took over the party en route to the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
And he still has control. While some Republican lawmakers grumble about Trump, his approval ratings among Republicans at large are as high as 90 percent in some polls.
"People voted for someone who would defy norms," Jennings said. "He is defying norms."
Trump and aides expressed annoyance at Senate and House Republicans who defected on the emergency declaration vote. But he predicted the tension will pass, also citing the president's strong support among rank-and-file Republicans.
On the other hand, Trump dropped more than a few veiled threats in the run-up to the vote.
"I think if they vote that way, it's a very bad thing for them long into the future," he said at one point.
Republicans who have criticized Trump say the party should buck the president even more.
"Encouraging to hear reports of Republican senators breaking away from their party loyalty – at long last – to stand up to the president against his emergency declaration and defend the Constitution," tweeted former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is reportedly considering a primary challenge to Trump.
Most of the senators who opposed Trump on the declaration occupy safe seats or won't face re-election until 2022.
GOP senators who face tough re-election bids next year – or possible primary challenges – sided with Trump, a group that included Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona, Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
Another vulnerable Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, voted against Trump.
The emergency declaration vote wasn't the first sign of friction between Trump and the Republicans, and those tensions will resurface in the months ahead.
Next up: lawmakers will jettison Trump’s budget proposal, overturning his proposals to slash funding for the global health and diplomacy programs.
Prospects for his renegotiated trade agreement with Canada and Mexico – the new NAFTA – are murky at best.
Some Republicans fought – with success – against Trump's snap decision late last year to pull all U.S. troops our of Syria. The White House has since announced it will keep about 400 military personnel in the country as part of the battle against the Islamic State.
Just this week, seven GOP senators bucked the president by supporting a bill that would force the administration to end its support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen.
The measure passed 54-46 – not enough to override another threatened veto by Trump, but still a remarkable rebuke to the president.
The vote showcased the growing unease in Congress with America's role in a far-flung, four-year conflict that has left more than 50,000 civilians dead and millions of Yemenis on the brink of starvation.
“The United States’ involvement in providing support to Saudi Arabia – which was never properly debated or approved by Congress in 2015 – has prolonged needless suffering, and our engagement in this war must come to an end," said Sen. Jerry Moran, a conservative Kansas Republican, in explaining his “yes” vote.
That vote was about far more than the war in Yemen, however.
It was also a condemnation of Trump’s refusal to admonish Saudi Arabia for its role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi operatives killed the American resident and Washington Post columnist inside a consulate in Istanbul.
Trump has cast doubt on the CIA’s conclusion that Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the murder, and he has insisted that Khashoggi’s death should not have any impact on U.S.-Saudi relations.
“It is becoming clearer and clearer that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not an ally that deserves our support or military intervention,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said during the Senate floor debate.
Republicans have also challenged Trump over his criticism of long-standing U.S. alliances, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
McConnell, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., extended an invitation to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to address a joint session of Congress.
It's a signal honor for the head of NATO, an organization Trump has frequently criticized over claims that some members are not paying their fair share for mutual defense.
The invitation was not designed to "send any message to the president," McConnell said, but he and Pelosi "both think that NATO is the most important military alliance in the history of the world ... We need to continue to demonstrate support for it and to reassure our European allies."
In the House, the new Democratic majority is already finding support for key bills countering Trump on foreign policy, from the Yemen resolution to support for NATO.
On Wednesday, Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, joined his Democratic counterpart in unveiling three pieces of legislation aimed at pushing back against Trump’s disdain for America’s allies and his reluctance to confront foes over human rights abuses.
McCaul called those “unshakable pillars” of American values and said it was vital to “reaffirm American’s trusted alliances” around the globe.
The measures are nonbinding but send seem to signal that some Republicans are fed up with Trump’s attacks on allies like Germany and Canada – and his coziness with autocrats such as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
When it comes to Republican restlessness, the worst-case scenario for Trump is a primary challenge of his own.
Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld is exploring such a bid, but he is little-known and Trump allies are quick to point out he has switched parties in the past.
Anti-Trumpers had hopes for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, but he has yet to express a desire to challenge the president.
A Kasich bid is also uncertain at this point.
Republican tension has been a frequent storyline during the Trump political era, Kondik said. He noted that, in the fall of 2016, after the release of a "Access Hollywood" tape in which Trump could be heard speaking lewdly about grabbing women's genitals, some Republicans called on him to abandon his own ticket.
Trump still wound up as president and still has sometimes tense ties with Republicans.
"It sort of stretches at times," Kondik said, "but never breaks."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What GOP split on border emergency means for Donald Trump and 2020