Government shutdown: Pa. Republicans in Congress wary of national emergency option

'It's probably not illegal,' said U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey. But he thinks it's a bad idea.

  • Ed Mahon

As the partial federal government shutdown continues with no end in sight, President Donald Trump has sent mixed messages about one way to try to end it: Declare a national emergency and direct billions of dollars for funding a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Several Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania don’t seem very excited about the idea.

U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, a Republican from southcentral Pennsylvania, gave a mixed answer during a Tuesday C-SPAN interview. Perry said the president has the right to declare a national emergency, but he said the courts probably would have to decide whether Trump can use money intended for the military for construction.

He said declaring a national emergency is not the best option — but it is one.

“I’m not thrilled with the fact that the executive would just take it under his purview completely and deal with it,” Perry said. “But once again, if we’ve got something that’s happening, and you can’t get the Congress to find some way to deal with it, do we just say the problem doesn’t exist?”

PA Post reached out to all 18 members of the U.S. House from Pennsylvania, as well as the two U.S. senators. We also reviewed legislators’ public statements on the issue.

Nationally, House Democrats have said they would challenge any national emergency declaration in the courts and in committee hearings, Politico reported. In Pennsylvania, U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat, said the move would set a “terrible precedent.”

Last week, Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey predicted the shutdown likely would end with Trump declaring a national emergency.

“I’m not convinced it’s a great idea. … I think the president probably has the legal authority to do this, but it’s really stretching the intent of the law,” Toomey said during a visit to Armstrong County in western Pennsylvania, according to the Leader Times.

Toomey also said, “It’s probably not illegal.”

Trump has appeared to go back and forth on the issue. On Jan. 10, Trump told reporters, “I have the absolute right to declare a national emergency. The lawyers have so advised me. I’m not prepared to do that yet, but if I have to, I will. I have no doubt about it. I will.”

But then, on Jan. 15, he said that even though he has the right to declare a national emergency,   “I’m not looking to call a national emergency. This is so simple, you shouldn’t have to.”

Evan Vucci / The Associated Press

President Donald Trump talks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before departing for the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 100th Annual Convention in New Orleans, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Washington.

U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Montgomery County Democrat, said she was pleased he appeared to be backing off the idea, “perhaps because he now understands that it would be unconstitutional, and that the American people disagree with this course of action.”

Still, some Pa. Republicans said that while they prefer a legislative solution, they think Trump has the power to handle the issue on his own.

“President Trump clearly has the authority to use an emergency declaration in order to alleviate the humanitarian crisis at our southern border and provide for increased border security,” Congressman Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican from southwestern Pennsylvania, said in a statement.

But Reschenthaler said he thinks the shutdown should be handled legislatively. U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, a Republican from Centre County, gave a similar answer.

“The president certainly has the power to declare a national emergency, however, the courts will be the ultimate arbiter,” Thompson said. “It would be my preference to have this situation handled by the legislative branch, who are empowered by the Constitution to make appropriations and law.”

J. Scott Applewhite / The Associated Press

From left, Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J., walk to a closed-door GOP meeting in the basement of the Capitol as the Republican leadership tries to reach a policy agreement between conservatives and moderates on immigration, in Washington, Thursday, June 7, 2018.

Meanwhile, some Republicans would rather not dwell on the issue.

“Well, when it comes to a declaration of emergency, that’s something up to the president to decide,” U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, a Republican from northwestern Pennsylvania, told FOX Business’ Neil Cavuto.

A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. John Joyce of Blair County didn’t directly address whether the congressman believes Trump has the authority to declare a national emergency, but he said Joyce “expects the wall to be funded through the legislative process.” And a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser of Luzerne County said providing resources to secure the border is “Congress’ job.”

G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College, said more of the blame for the shutdown is falling on Trump than Democrats. And he said Republicans in Congress need to proceed with caution on the issue of a national emergency.

Still, Madonna said many of the nine Republican members of Congress in Pennsylvania are in safe Republican districts and don’t have to worry too much about long-term risks.

But U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican in Bucks County, is not in a safe district. He’s the last Republican member of Congress from the Philadelphia suburbs, and he narrowly won re-election in 2018.

During a recent interview with NPR, Fitzpatrick said the funding decision should be made by Congress, and he expressed doubt about whether funding the wall through a national emergency declaration would be legal.

“I personally think that if he went that path, it would get tied up in litigation,” Fitzpatrick said.

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