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On high-profile vote, NC's Tillis defends principles, then rejects them

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) stuck his neck out in opposition to Trump's emergency declaration -- right up until he chickened out when it really mattered.
Candidate for U.S. Senate Thom Tillis at an early voting location in Cornelius, N.C. on Nov. 1, 2014.
Candidate for U.S. Senate Thom Tillis at an early voting location in Cornelius, N.C. on Nov. 1, 2014.

After the Democratic-led House passed a resolution to block Donald Trump's emergency declaration, it was not at all clear whether it would pass the Republican-led Senate, and at least at first, many GOP senators were reluctant to stick their necks out. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), to his credit, said he'd put principle over party.

In fact, the North Carolina Republican went so far as to write a Feb. 25 op-ed for the Washington Post, explaining why he felt the need to oppose the White House's legally dubious gambit, even if he agreed with the president's underlying policy goals on border security.

Those on the left and the right who are making Trump's emergency declaration a simple political litmus test of whether one supports or opposes the president and his policies are missing the mark. 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.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 to advance radical policies that will erode economic and individual freedoms.

A week later, Tillis was unwavering. Defending his position, the Republican added, "It's never a tough vote for me when I'm standing on principle."

That's not a quote that stands up well.

It was easy to admire the North Carolinian at the time for ignoring the pressure and doing the right thing -- right up until today, when Thom Tillis flip-flopped. Twelve Republicans broke party ranks and supported the resolution, but Tillis, less than three weeks after taking a bold and principled stand, was not among them.

What caused him to cave under pressure? Only the senator knows for sure what prompted such a dramatic change of heart, but it's worth noting that in the wake of his op-ed, there was some grumbling in far-right circles about a possible primary challenge to Tillis in 2020.

To be sure, the North Carolina Republican isn't the only one who put principles aside today. There were about 8 to 10 GOP senators who raised public concerns about the president's gambit after Trump announced he was redirecting funds in defiance of Congress' wishes, only to vote with the White House's position when push came to shove.

But none went quite as far as Tillis. It'll be a while before he lives this one down.

* Update: I'd be remiss if I neglected to note that Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) wrote a piece on the debate a month ago, arguing at the time, “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.”

Today, Sasse nevertheless voted against the resolution and suggested his vote was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) fault. Those who hope the Nebraskan will become Capitol Hill's exciting new maverick are probably going to be disappointed.