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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 TrumpMore than two-thirds of Americans approve of Biden's coronavirus response: poll Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor Mexico's president tests positive for 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 McConnellBiden attends first church service as president in DC, stops at local bagel shop Harry Reid 'not particularly optimistic' Biden will push to eliminate filibuster Senators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial 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 CollinsBiden officials hold call with bipartisan group of senators on coronavirus relief plan The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds GOP senators say only a few Republicans will vote to convict Trump MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial Trump impeachment trial to begin week of Feb. 8 Murkowski didn't vote for Trump, won't join Democrats MORE (Alaska) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenators introduce bill to award Officer Goodman the Congressional Gold Medal Schumer becomes new Senate majority leader Democrats see Georgia as model for success across South 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 AlexanderCongress addressed surprise medical bills, but the issue is not resolved Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (Tenn.), Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBiden officials hold call with bipartisan group of senators on coronavirus relief plan Five examples of media's sycophancy for Biden on inauguration week Romney: Total figure for Biden coronavirus stimulus is 'pretty shocking' MORE (Utah), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official MORE (Ky.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSunday shows - Biden agenda, Trump impeachment trial dominate Rubio: Trump impeachment trial is 'stupid' The Memo: Biden gambles that he can do it all 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 GrahamSenators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial Trump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair 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 JohnsonGOP senators call for commission to investigate Capitol attack Wisconsin Democrats make ad buy calling on Johnson to resign Efforts to secure elections likely to gain ground in Democrat-controlled Congress MORE (R-Wis.) and Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Overnight Defense: Trump impeached for second time | National Guard at Capitol now armed, swelling to 20K troops for inauguration | Alabama chosen for Space Command home Space Command to be located in Alabama 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 DainesOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden's Interior Department temporarily blocks new drilling on public lands | Group of GOP senators seeks to block Biden moves on Paris, Keystone | Judge grants preliminary approval for 0M Flint water crisis settlement Group of GOP senators seeks to block Biden moves on Paris, Keystone Biden recommits US to Paris climate accord 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) TesterSenate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster 50-50 Senate opens the door to solutions outlasting Trump's moment of violence Biden VA pick faces 'steep learning curve' at massive agency 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 - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds Senate chaos threatens to slow Biden's agenda NRSC chair says he'll back GOP incumbents against Trump primary challengers MORE (S.D.). 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCapitol insurrection fallout: A PATRIOT Act 2.0? Schumer calls for DOJ watchdog to probe alleged Trump effort to oust acting AG Student loan forgiveness would be windfall for dentists, doctors and lawyers 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.