White House pleads with Senate GOP on emergency declaration

Vice President Pence rushed to the Senate on Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to convince GOP senators to oppose a resolution approved by the House that would block President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE’s emergency declaration to build a wall on the Mexican border.

Pence lunched with Senate Republicans hours before the House vote, but remarks after the meeting pointed to the tall task he and the White House face in stopping the resolution.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP should grab the chance to upend Pelosi's plan on reconciliation We don't need platinum to solve the debt ceiling crisis The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble MORE (R-Ky.) went as far as saying that he’s not sure the declaration is legal, a statement unlikely to give pause to senators thinking about opposing Trump.

“I haven’t reached a total conclusion,” McConnell told reporters when asked for his personal opinion on the legality of Trump’s move. 

McConnell said that while he graduated from law school, he’s not an expert on constitutional questions of separations of power.

McConnell said Tuesday that he expects the resolution to receive a vote before the Senate leaves for its next recess March 15.

“We had a very fulsome discussion of this issue in the conference,” McConnell told reporters, summarizing his meeting with colleagues. “I think I can safely say my members were extremely interested in the subject.”

Every senator who caucuses with Democrats is expected to back the resolution, and three Republicans — Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsLooking to the past to secure America's clean energy future Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid McConnell privately urged GOP senators to oppose debt ceiling hike MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff Graham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet Trump, allies launch onslaught as midterms kick into gear MORE (Alaska) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisGOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime How to fix the semiconductor chip shortage (it's more than manufacturing) MORE (N.C.) — have come out in support.

That gives the resolution 50 votes, meaning Pence right now would cast the tiebreaker.

But if just one more Senate Republican votes with Democrats, the resolution will pass, and Trump will be forced to issue his first veto. The measure is privileged and needs only a simple majority to pass.  

A number of GOP senators have raised concerns with the emergency declaration, including Sens. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism MORE (Tenn.), Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGraham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet GOP senator will 'probably' vote for debt limit increase Five questions and answers about the debt ceiling fight MORE (Utah), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 White House debates vaccines for air travel Senate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken MORE (Ky.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Memo: Biden's immigration problems reach crescendo in Del Rio Democrats face bleak outlook in Florida The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems attempt to tie government funding, Ida relief to debt limit MORE (Fla.).

Tillis said the arguments from Pence and a Justice Department lawyer who accompanied him failed to change his mind.

“I, for one, believe that if it is found constitutional, it lays the groundwork for some very dangerous decisions made by someone at the other end of the spectrum,” he said, warning that a future Democratic president could seize on the precedent set by Trump to enact liberal policies. 

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Pence told lawmakers that the president’s action is justified by what he called the “crisis” at the border, while the Justice Department official outlined Trump’s authority in the 1976 National Emergencies Act, according to senators who heard the presentations. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump pushes back on book claims, says he spent 'virtually no time' discussing election with Lee, Graham The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden meets with lawmakers amid domestic agenda panic MORE (R-S.C.) said Pence’s message was “very clear.”

“There’s a crisis. [If] you don’t believe me, we’ll have people come over and explain it to you,” Pence told GOP senators, according to Graham. 

The Justice Department lawyer argued the National Emergencies Act specifically allows the president to move around money, a power the administration argues has been invoked 58 times since 1976. 

Pence also received support from allies such as Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble Liberal group launches campaign urging Republicans to support Biden's agenda Domestic extremists return to the Capitol MORE (R-Wis.) and Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - House Democrats plagued by Biden agenda troubles GOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff McConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling MORE (R-Ala.). 

Johnson told colleagues that about 120,00 unaccompanied minors and families have already been apprehended at the border in fiscal 2019, surpassing the number of unaccompanied minors who surged across the border in 2014, when former President Obama declared a humanitarian crisis. 

“Most of the discussion was about the crisis we have,” Johnson later told reporters. 

Shelby sought to assure colleagues who are concerned that Trump wants to pull as much as $3.6 billion out of military construction accounts to build border barriers. 

He argued that Congress would replenish the military construction funds by Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year. 

Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesWarren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Daines to introduce bill awarding Congressional Gold Medal to troops killed in Afghanistan Powell reappointment to Fed chair backed by Yellen: report MORE (R-Mont.) stood up to talk about the flood of methamphetamines from Mexico that have spread as far as his home state. Daines is up for reelection in 2020 and Montana’s growing meth epidemic was an issue in the 2018 midterm, when Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterThree dead, dozens injured after Amtrak train derailed in Montana The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Biden jumps into frenzied Dem spending talks Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B MORE (D-Mont.) narrowly won reelection.

But some Republicans remained unconvinced. 

Murkowski said she still hasn’t received adequate clarification from the administration on how military construction money will be redirected and expressed concern over the fate of projects important to her home state. 

Asked if the White House has tried to talk her out of voting for the resolution, Murkowski responded, “Well, the vice president was with us for lunch.”

McConnell, who reportedly had warned Trump that a resolution would pass the Senate, didn’t go that far publicly on Tuesday.

“I personally couldn’t handicap the outcome at this point,” he said. “One thing that’s not in debate in our conference is we really do think there’s a crisis at the border.”

Yet, he acknowledged, “there are different points of view about how to address that, and all of that will be dealt with publicly on the floor.” 

The measure will likely first be referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee, where it can wait up to 15 days before becoming privileged for consideration on the Senate floor, according to GOP lawmakers.

It’s possible that Republicans will try to amend the resolution, which could make it tougher for Democrats to pass, depending on how it’s altered. 

“We have members who, on most vehicles that come to the floor, would like to get amendments,” said Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSchumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B GOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff MORE (S.D.). 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats press Schumer on removing Confederate statues from Capitol Democrats' do-or-die moment Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan MORE (D-N.Y.) said the disapproval resolution “should be an easy vote for every member of Congress, Democrat or Republican, if you believe in our Constitution.”

“The president has invented an emergency out of thin air. The facts on the ground haven’t changed in any way. All he wants to do is an end run around Congress,” he said. “The question is, will our Republican colleagues participate in that?”

Jordain Carney contributed.