The vote on Thursday set up the first veto showdown of Trump’s presidency and a major political issue for the 2020 election.
Despite last minute personal appeals from Trump and a White House lobbying campaign, 12 Republicans broke with the president to join the Democrats in voting against the wall.
The margin, however, fell short of what would be needed to override a Trump veto which the US president is likely to do, according to his tweet sent a few minutes after the Senate decision.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 14, 2019
Building a wall to stop migration from Mexico was Trump’s signature campaign issue during his presidential election campaign in 2016. It was also at the core of the constitutional standoff between Trump and Congress that led to a 35-day government shutdown earlier this year.
“The president’s emergency declaration is an end run around Congress, plain and simple,” said Senator Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, one of four US states that border Mexico.
“I am here to tell you there is no national security emergency along the border in New Mexico.”
Immigration has been a long-running, unresolved political issue in the US since a bipartisan immigration reform bill that was passed by the Senate in 2013 but failed in the House of Representatives because of Republican opposition.
Eleven million immigrants from Mexico and other countries are currently living in the US without proper authorisation, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan organisation in Washington, DC.
Since October 1 last year, US Customs and Border Patrol has apprehended 268,000 persons trying to cross the southwest US border.
“We have failed to protect our border as any sovereign nation must and our people are dying because of it,” said Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican.
“The president has declared a national emergency because of this crisis. Yet, the administration’s sensible long-overdue efforts to secure the border have been met only by howls of outrage from the Democratic party.”
Republicans who voted against Trump cited the US Constitution’s assignment of authority over spending to Congress, not the president, and argued that shifting funding away from military construction projects already approved by Congress would have negative consequences.
“Do we want the executive branch now or in the future to hold the power of the purse, a power the framers deliberately gave to the Congress,” said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, who voted with Democrats against the president.
Trump sought to label opponents of the wall as elitists, out of touch with real people’s concerns and weak on undocumented immigration.
The president and his allies argue that the situation at the southern border presents a humanitarian and security crisis.
Trump has adopted a “zero tolerance” policy at the border, leading to family separations and detentions of as many as 15,000 children.
“The president is operating within existing law and the crisis on the border is all too real,” Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
Trump declared a national emergency on February 15, invoking powers delegated by Congress to the president under the National Emergency Act of 1976.
He designated construction of the border wall as a military project, allowing him to raid six billion dollars in funds from already approved military construction projects. An additional $600m would come from a drug forfeiture programme.
Congress already approved $1.375bn for border barriers after the government shutdown.
A coalition of 16 states, including California, Nevada and New Mexico, sued the president and his administration on February 18 in San Francisco’s federal court, arguing the president does not have the power to divert the funds against the will of Congress.
The case is likely to end up in the US Supreme Court.
“Instead of accepting that we live in a democracy and he is not a monarch, instead of accepting that in a democracy there are two other co-equal branches of government that can constrain his actions, the president has decided to ignore the Constitution and the will of Congress and go it alone,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.
The House of Representatives voted 245-182 to overturn Trump’s emergency declaration on February 26. The Senate’s action today sends the resolution to the president’s desk.
Polls show most Americans do not support Trump’s plan, although sentiment is sharply divided along partisan lines with most Republicans supporting the president.
Sixty-four percent said the country is on the wrong track and 51 percent said they oppose Trump’s emergency declaration, according to a February 15-19 poll of 1,914 voters by POLITICO/Morning Consult.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump had repeatedly claimed that Mexico would pay for the wall. He was unable to secure the funds when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress from 2017 to 2018.