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 TrumpJoint Chiefs chairman denies report that US is planning to keep 1K troops in Syria Kansas Department of Transportation calls Trump 'delusional communist' on Twitter Trump has privately voiced skepticism about driverless cars: report 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 McConnellRepublicans up for reelection fear daylight with Trump Overnight Energy: Students around globe demand climate action | EPA bans consumer sales of deadly chemical in paint strippers | Green New Deal set for Senate vote The Hill's Morning Report — Trump readies first veto after latest clash with Senate GOP 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 CollinsRepublicans up for reelection fear daylight with Trump The 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration The Hill's Morning Report — Trump readies first veto after latest clash with Senate GOP MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration Overnight Defense: Senate rejects border emergency in rebuke to Trump | Acting Pentagon chief grilled on wall funding | Warren confronts chief over war fund budget 12 Republican senators defy Trump on emergency declaration  MORE (Alaska) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisRepublicans up for reelection fear daylight with Trump The Hill's Morning Report — Trump readies first veto after latest clash with Senate GOP 12 Republican senators defy Trump on emergency declaration  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 AlexanderThe 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration Trump issues first veto, warning of 'reckless' resolution Overnight Defense: Senate rejects border emergency in rebuke to Trump | Acting Pentagon chief grilled on wall funding | Warren confronts chief over war fund budget MORE (Tenn.), Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration Overnight Defense: Senate rejects border emergency in rebuke to Trump | Acting Pentagon chief grilled on wall funding | Warren confronts chief over war fund budget 12 Republican senators defy Trump on emergency declaration  MORE (Utah), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration Overnight Defense: Senate rejects border emergency in rebuke to Trump | Acting Pentagon chief grilled on wall funding | Warren confronts chief over war fund budget 12 Republican senators defy Trump on emergency declaration  MORE (Ky.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration Ocasio-Cortez's favorable, unfavorable ratings up: poll Rubio, Menendez request probe into administration's nuclear negotiations with Saudi Arabia 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 GrahamCNN anchor hits Trump: He didn't go to Vietnam 'until he was in his 70s' with 'Secret Service protection' Trump reignites criticism of McCain months after senator's death Graham defends McCain amid Trump attacks: 'Nothing about his service will ever be changed' 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 12:30 Report: O'Rourke jumps into 2020 fray Trump vows veto ahead of Senate vote on emergency declaration Senate to rebuke Trump on wall MORE (R-Wis.) and Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyFive takeaways from Trump's budget Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Trump unveils 2020 budget | Calls for cuts to NIH | Proposes user fees on e-cigs | Azar heads to Capitol to defend blueprint | Key drug price bill gets hearing this week Trump's emergency declaration looms over Pentagon funding fight 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 DainesRepublicans up for reelection fear daylight with Trump Overnight Defense: Senate breaks with Trump on Yemen war | Shanahan hit with ethics complaint over Boeing ties | Pentagon rolls out order to implement transgender ban | Dem chair throws cold water on Space Force budget Senate breaks with Trump on Saudi-led war in Yemen 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) TesterSanders, Ocasio-Cortez back 'end the forever war' pledge Dems wrestle over how to vote on ‘Green New Deal’ White House pleads with Senate GOP on emergency declaration 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 ThuneSenators offer bipartisan bill to fix 'retail glitch' in GOP tax law GOP's Tillis comes under pressure for taking on Trump We need a national privacy law that respects the First Amendment MORE (S.D.). 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerWhy we need to build gateway now Campaign to draft Democratic challenger to McConnell starts raising funds Schumer congratulates J. Lo and A-Rod, but says 'I'm never officiating a wedding again' 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.