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GOP Rep. Cole To Stand With Trump On Border Wall Emergency

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Some Republicans may be doing a delicate dance this week. Take Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. She says she is likely to vote to overturn President Trump's decision to declare a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LISA MURKOWSKI: I probably will be supporting the resolution to disapprove, not because I disagree with the president, but because I think it's so important that there be clearer lines when it comes to the separation of powers.

GREENE: And that raises a central question as lawmakers vote this week. The president declared an emergency this month so he can use government funds to build a border wall. By doing that, is he taking away Congress' power to make spending decisions for the country? Today is a vote in the House on whether to disapprove of the president's action. And Republican Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma is with us. Good morning, Congressman.

TOM COLE: Hey, David. Good morning to you.

GREENE: So how you going to vote?

COLE: I'm going to vote to sustain the president's position.

GREENE: To sustain the president - you're going to vote against disapproving.

COLE: That's correct.

GREENE: You're going to stand with him.

COLE: That's correct.

GREENE: Didn't you call letting a president declare national emergencies like this unwelcome precedent not too long ago?

COLE: I did, and I still think it is. And frankly, to the president's credit, he tried not to. If you'll recall, he tried to negotiate for quite some time - told people he had the power, but he would prefer to do it legislatively. And frankly, I think in the end he couldn't get any cooperation from the other side. So I think he's acting well within his authority.

GREENE: So you're - just to be clear, you are voting in favor of something that you call unwelcome precedent?

COLE: It is an unwelcome precedent. And again, the president tried not to set this precedent. If you recall, in the last Congress, we passed this legislation in December through the House. We have majority in the Senate that favored it. The Democrats used the rules of the Senate and blocked the vote from happening. That triggered the government shutdown. The president would have signed that. Then he offered to - actually in December, before the shutdown - to split the difference, basically, to say OK, instead of $5.7 billion, how about $2 1/2 billion, $3 billion? No response. Then, when we were in the shutdown, he offered to put DACA on the table - something that the Democrats said, you know, a year earlier, said they'd be willing to pay $25 billion for the wall in exchange for that - no response. So we got to the point, I think, that this was more about defeating President Trump than it was about taking care of a serious national security problem on the southern border.

GREENE: But isn't that also the way the process works and the way the Constitution laid it out, that a president will negotiate with members of Congress? And ultimately, Congress has the power to decide what to fund and what not to fund. And...

COLE: It is. And generally, that's how it does work. In this case, the president - No. 1, to be fair to Congress, he got $1.4 billion when he wasn't supposed to get a dollar. There's no question, I think, about using the money to - you know, in the drug interdiction fund. So that's well within his power. The real question is, you know, do you want to invoke a national emergency? Under the 1976 national emergency law, he clearly has the power to do that. Congress, by the way, also has the power to take that away, which is what we're going to see exercised today by my Democratic colleagues and within 18 days in the Senate as well. But the president again, under the Constitution, can veto that.

And if he has the votes to sustain it - and I think he clearly does in both chambers - then I guess we'll be off to the courts. But in the end, I think his legal position is quite sound because this is not an unusual thing. President Obama himself declared a humanitarian crisis on the border in 2014. He declared national emergency in dealing with international drug dealers.

GREENE: But we should say - I mean, you know this as well as I do. There has been a lot of debate about whether the situation at the border amounts to a, quote-unquote, "emergency." And, I guess, my question for you, in terms of precedent, is are you concerned that, in the future - I mean, a president from either party - if he or she doesn't get what he or she wants from Congress in terms of money, might be able to just say, you know what? OK, there's an emergency. I'm going to go around Congress and get the money anyway.

COLE: There's nothing new about that. President Obama did that with DACA and did go around Congress. And that is tied up in the courts today

GREENE: But that wasn't a funding decision, right? That was an executive action that wasn't actually money that Congress had decided not to give the president.

COLE: It's still an act that the president himself had said a year earlier would be unconstitutional. So - I mean this push and pull between the executive and legislative branches is about as old as the republic. So I think that's going to continue. But I think the president is acting in the national interest, and I think he's got secure legal basis to do so.

GREENE: Tom Cole is a Republican congressman from Oklahoma talking to us about his vote today. Congressman, always great to have you. Thank you very much.

COLE: David, thank you.

GREENE: I want to bring in NPR White House correspondent, Tamara Keith who has been listening. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

GREENE: So what did you make of that?

KEITH: Well, I think that there will be a lot of Republican lawmakers who, like Congressman Cole, leading up to this said that they really didn't want the president to take this action, said they were worried about the precedent it could set - concerned about preserving Article I of the Constitution and congressional power of the purse - but who ultimately will fall in line and support President Trump.

There is one Republican senator other than Lisa Murkowski, who you mentioned. Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, published an editorial in The Washington Post where he's saying that those concerns - even though he supports the president's desire to build a wall, those concerns are causing him to support the Democratic effort to repeal the emergency order. He says there is no intellectual honesty in now turning around and arguing that there is an imaginary asterisk attached to executive overreach, that it's acceptable for my party, but not thy party.

GREENE: Tam, how much pressure are Republicans under to stand with President Trump in this moment? I mean, his approval ratings are - aren't great, but are there political pressures?

KEITH: Yeah, but they are great with Republicans. And that's exactly what the issue is, that congressional Republicans are all running for re-election, and many senators are up for re-election.

GREENE: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.