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 John TrumpMulvaney: 'We've overreacted a little bit' to coronavirus Former CBS News president: Most major cable news outlets 'unrelentingly liberal' in 'fear and loathing' of Trump An old man like me should be made more vulnerable to death by COVID-19 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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Americans debate life under COVID-19 risks The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Democratic leaders say Trump testing strategy is 'to deny the truth' about lack of supplies 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 CollinsBottom line The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Americans debate life under COVID-19 risks This week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House's proxy voting MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiRepublicans push for help for renewable energy, fossil fuel industries The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Mnuchin: More COVID-19 congressional action ahead Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day MORE (Alaska) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisThe 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting Lawmakers ask for briefings on Chinese targeting of coronavirus research 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 AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSenators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day McConnell gives two vulnerable senators a boost with vote on outdoor recreation bill Five unanswered questions on COVID-19 and the 2020 election MORE (Tenn.), Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump, GOP go all-in on anti-China strategy Senate panel approves Trump nominee under investigation Pelosi, Democrats press case for mail-in voting amid Trump attacks MORE (Utah), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSunday shows preview: States begin to reopen even as some areas in US see case counts increase Congress headed toward unemployment showdown Doctors push Trump to quickly reopen country in letter organized by conservatives MORE (Ky.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThis week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House's proxy voting Overwhelming majority of publicly traded firms have not returned small-business loans: review GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill 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 GrahamWhy do Americans worry about North Korea? Senate confirms Ratcliffe to be Trump's spy chief Abrams announces endorsements in 7 Senate races 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 JohnsonHouse chair threatens subpoenas if Pompeo doesn't provide Biden docs he gave Senate GOP Senate confirms Ratcliffe to be Trump's spy chief Schumer dubs GOP 'conspiracy caucus' amid Obama-era probes MORE (R-Wis.) and Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyTop Republican says Trump greenlit budget fix for VA health care GOP senators not tested for coronavirus before lunch with Trump McConnell, GOP senators support exempting VA health funds from budget caps 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 DainesThe 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Hillicon Valley: Tech companies lead way on WFH forever | States and counties plead for cybersecurity assistance | Trump weighing anti-conservative bias panel Memorial Day weekend deals latest economic blow to travel industry 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) TesterThe 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Memorial Day during COVID-19: How to aid our country's veterans Senate votes to reauthorize intel programs with added legal protections 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 ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US death toll nears 100,000 as country grapples with reopening GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill On The Money: Jobless rate exceeds 20 percent in three states | Senate goes on break without passing small business loan fix | Biden pledges to not raise taxes on those making under 0K MORE (S.D.). 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocratic leaders say Trump testing strategy is 'to deny the truth' about lack of supplies Trump slams Sessions: 'You had no courage & ruined many lives' Senate Democrats call on Trump administration to let Planned Parenthood centers keep PPP loans 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.