Politics & Government

Tillis votes again with Trump on border emergency declaration, despite NC military cuts

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis voted a second time Wednesday to back President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration that allowed the military to shift millions from construction projects in North Carolina to help build a wall on the southern border.

Tillis, a Republican from Huntersville, at first objected to Trump’s national emergency declaration when the issue first emerged in February, writing a column in The Washington Post to highlight his position. But after a harsh reaction from conservatives in the state, Tillis opted to stick with Trump on the votes in March and on Wednesday.

In between those votes, the Department of Defense announced the $3.6 billion in projects that would see their funding shifted to the border wall. Included in that amount was $47 million in active projects from North Carolina, including $15.3 million for a new ambulatory care center at Camp Lejeune to replace “substandard, inefficient, decentralized and uncontrolled facilities.”

The department’s list also included $33 million for a previously canceled elementary school at Fort Bragg.

Senate Democrats can force a vote on the national emergency declaration every six months. The Senate voted 54-41 to block Trump’s declaration, with support from 11 Republicans, but that is not enough votes to override Trump’s veto. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina also sided with Trump.

“I once again supported President Trump’s emergency declaration because Democrats refuse to provide the President with the tools and resources he needs to address the crisis at our southern border and keep America safe,” Tillis said in a statement after Wednesday’s vote.

Tillis’ March flip-flop, as it was described by nearly every political observer, certainly shored up his relationship with Trump, who remains as popular as ever with Republicans. Trump endorsed Tillis’ re-election bid, and the campaign’s first television ad features the president prominently. It is part of a $2.2-million advertising buy between now and the primary on March 3.

Less clear and more important is if it has repaired his relationship with GOP primary voters in North Carolina. When Trump announced Tillis at a Fayetteville rally earlier this month, there were boos from the pro-Trump crowd.

“It points to the fact that there’s obviously some dislike of Tillis among the Trump base in the state,” said Andrew Taylor, an N.C. State political scientist professor.

Among voters in general, a High Point University poll released Wednesday found 27% of North Carolinians approve and 38% disapprove of the job Tillis is doing. Trump, for comparison, is at 42% approval and 50% disapproval.

Challengers line up

The move to cling to Trump comes as Tillis faces two GOP challengers: retired Raleigh businessman and author Garland Tucker III and farmer Sandy Smith.

Three Democrats are competing for the nomination: lawyer and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller, and engineer and state Sen. Erica Smith.

The Cook Political Report, which ranks races, changed its prediction for the North Carolina seat from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican” last week, moving it one notch toward Democrats. It is expected to be the fifth most-competitive race in 2020, behind only Democratic-held Alabama and Republican-held Colorado, Maine and Arizona. Morning Consult, which does extensive polling on senators, found Tillis with a 33% approval rating, the lowest in the nation.

Both Smith and Cunningham have touted polls that show them leading Tillis. Smith led in an Emerson poll, while Cunningham has three polls that show him with a narrow edge. Cunningham has the backing of many North Carolina elected Democrats, and announced seven senior staff hires including several former aides to Sen. Kay Hagan, who Tillis defeated in 2014.

Running alongside Trump worked for new Rep. Dan Bishop, who narrowly defeated Democrat Dan McCready this month in a special election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

Military funding

The new facility at Camp Lejeune, which was scheduled to get funding in January according to the Department of Defense, would include primary care, behavioral health, physical therapy, dental, pharmacy, laboratory, X-ray and supporting administrative functions, according to the request. It would also “solve the problem of providing Primary Care services to the active duty operational forces in decentralized care (stations) located in substandard infrastructure throughout the installation.”

The money was supposed to come in January 2020, according to the Department of Defense. But the funding issue isn’t going away.

Republicans in the Senate voted to include “backfill” money for the projects in the latest defense bill, while House Democrats are opposed and did not include the money in their version of the defense spending measure.

“We’ve appropriated the money. These are hard-earned dollars. We don’t appropriate twice or three times. We appropriate once. We expect the appropriation to be spent as directed,” said Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat and member of the House Appropriations Committee. “This is totally, totally out of line. We have rules about how you move money around, you don’t whenever you have a disagreement declare a national emergency and move it around at will.”

Tillis is among the senators who will be working to reach a compromise between the two versions of the defense spending bill. Tillis’ office said the senator has brought more than $1 billion in military construction to North Carolina during his tenure, including more than $336 million for Fort Bragg.

Throughout the 2016 campaign and into his presidency, Trump said Mexico would pay for the border wall.

Defense spending is up sharply under Trump, who promised to “rebuild” the military throughout his campaign. Spending has increased from $586 billion in 2015 to $716 billion in 2019, and it will rise again in 2020.

In March 2019, citing the precedent it would set for future presidents and previous Republican complaints about executive overreach under President Barack Obama, Tillis laid out the case for rejecting the national emergency declaration.

When Tillis announced his change on the Senate floor on March 14 he said “a lot has changed over the last three weeks.” He said he’d secured consensus with the administration on amending the National Emergencies Act to prevent future abuses. Twelve Republicans voted along with Democrats to reject the national emergency declaration, but Trump vetoed it and Congress was unable to override.

Tillis is a co-sponsor on Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s bill that would give Congress a better check on a national emergency declaration. It is one of several bills that would limit a president’s powers under the act that have been introduced. None have gotten a committee hearing in Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at the time that she would not consider the legislation unless Trump’s national emergency were repealed.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Domecast politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.