Senate Republicans took to the floor last week and proudly declared their support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In a big show of solidarity, the Senate then unanimously passed a bill compelling the U.S. to hold China responsible for human rights abuses against the people of Hong Kong.
Republicans enthusiastically pushed the bill through, not knowing whether President Donald Trump, who has hardly said anything in support of the protesters, will sign it into law.
“I would encourage this president, who has seen Chinese behavior for what it is with a clarity that others have lacked, not to shy away from speaking out on Hong Kong himself,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a floor speech last week.
Trump wouldn’t commit to endorsing the bill and avoided forcefully speaking up for the protesters of Hong Kong during a Fox News interview late last week, however.
“We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi,” Trump said in the interview, referring to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whom he also called a “friend of mine.” The Hong Kong legislation comes as Trump is trying to negotiate a trade deal with China, one of his biggest campaign promises.
Top Republicans, meanwhile, indicated they are willing to override Trump even if he vetoes the bill, which the House also passed last month by a near-unanimous vote.
“There’s overwhelming support for this ― as you know, 100 [votes] in the United States Senate. I would imagine there would be an override of this. I would encourage the president to sign it,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said over the weekend.
The way Republicans have handled the Hong Kong matter is strikingly unlike their approach to the recent debate over gun safety legislation. In the wake of the deadly mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, over the summer, Republicans insisted they needed to hear what measures intended to curb gun violence Trump could support before moving forward with debate in the Senate.
“Until we get that guidance, we’re in a holding pattern,” McConnell said at a weekly press briefing in September.
“If the president doesn’t support it, then there’s no point. So it’s like, why are we even going through this?” added Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a vocal supporter of the Hong Kong protesters who spoke on behalf of the bill that passed in the Senate last week.
Trump expressed support for the idea of expanding background checks on all gun purchases following the deadly shootings in August, but subsequently backed off after private lobbying from conservatives and the National Rifle Association, the nation’s biggest gun lobby. A bipartisan trio of senators who expressed optimism about discussions with the White House in September about gun legislation now says the administration has gone quiet. The next debate over guns in Washington is, at least according to recent history, likely only to occur after the next horrific mass shooting.
Republicans have repeatedly shown they’re more willing to challenge Trump on foreign policy ― where they are far more united ― than on divisive domestic issues. All six bills Trump has vetoed so far in his presidency, for example, relate to various topics around the world. But what the Hong Kong episode also shows is that Republicans can stand up to Trump when they’re willing to fight for something they actually believe in.
“Mitch McConnell decides what we vote on in the Senate, and he’s clearly OK bucking Trump when it suits him,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of the gun control advocates who participated in talks with the White House, said in a statement. “Some of my Republican colleagues seem to be willing to pass legislation to expand background checks, and who knows what Trump would do if we passed something. More than likely he would sign it. So why the willingness to stand up for people in Hong Kong but not for kids here in America?”