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Biden-era Democrats learn to love emergency powers after hating them under Trump

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A sizable group of Democratic politicians have pressured President Joe Biden to declare national emergencies on the climate and abortion rights in recent weeks, but nearly 80 of those lawmakers attacked his predecessor’s use of emergency powers.

Former President Donald Trump declared a national emergency at the southern border in February 2019 as a means of bypassing Congress and securing funding for the completion of his campaign-promised border wall. The move was heartily opposed by Democrats at the time as an abuse of executive power.

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“The President’s unlawful declaration over a crisis that does not exist does great violence to our Constitution and makes America less safe, stealing from urgently needed defense funds for the security of our military and our nation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a joint statement at the time. “This is plainly a power grab by a disappointed President, who has gone outside the bounds of the law to try to get what he failed to achieve in the constitutional legislative process.”

Even Trump’s final White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows , then a North Carolina Republican congressman and the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus , suggested Trump’s border emergency was a “slippery slope” and predicted “the potential for national emergencies being used for every single thing that we face in the future where we can’t reach an agreement.”

The House passed a bill in late February 2019 seeking to block Trump’s declaration, as outlined in the National Emergencies Act of 1976, but the measure eventually died in the Senate. Biden ended the border emergency in February 2021, shortly after entering office. A year and a half later, he is facing pressure from Democrats to invoke similar emergency powers on abortion and climate.

Eighty-three members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to the president and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra on July 12, urging him to declare an emergency in response to “the Supreme Court’s radical and dangerous decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Sixty-eight of the letter’s signatories voted to overturn Trump’s border emergency back in 2019, and only two of the lawmakers who did not vote yes were sitting members of Congress at the time. Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Steve Cohen (D-TN) both abstained from voting.

The White House is weighing declaring a public health emergency to shield doctors, pharmacies, and other healthcare providers who offer access to abortion pills in states with stringent abortion bans, but officials are reportedly concerned about the prospects that Republicans would attempt to file lawsuits over any such declared emergencies. Biden himself said he was open to reevaluating the idea during a meeting with state governors who took action to protect abortion access following the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling.

Similarly, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) all called on Biden to declare climate change a national emergency this past week.

“Declaring the climate crisis a national emergency under the NEA would unlock powers to rebuild a better economy with significant, concrete actions,” the group wrote in a letter sent to the White House. “Under the NEA, you could redirect spending to build out renewable energy systems on military bases, implement large-scale clean transportation solutions and finance distributed energy projects to boost climate resiliency. All of these actions would employ Americans in new and emerging industries while securing American leadership in global markets.”

“We do not urge you to declare a national emergency lightly. We fought President Trump’s efforts to misuse executive power and sideline Congress, including to build a wasteful and destructive border wall,” the group continued. “A president’s emergency powers should not be used wantonly. What we cannot afford, however, is to shy away from tackling the climate crisis just because President Trump misused the NEA. If ever there is an emergency that demands ambitious action, climate chaos is it.”

Biden hinted on Wednesday that he might soon declare a national emergency on the climate.

“Since Congress is not acting as it should,” the president told speech attendees while announcing $2.3 billion in new clean energy funding, “this is an emergency, an emergency, and I will look at it that way.”

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“As president, I’ll use my executive powers to combat the climate crisis in the absence of congressional action, notwithstanding their incredible action,” he continued. “In the coming days, my administration will announce the executive action we have developed to combat this emergency. We need to act.”