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 TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist 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 - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment White House, Congress inch toward debt, budget deal Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout 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 CollinsTrump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOvernight Defense: Highlights from Defense pick's confirmation hearing | Esper spars with Warren over ethics | Sidesteps questions on Mattis vs. Trump | Trump says he won't sell F-35s to Turkey Epstein charges show Congress must act to protect children from abuse PBS premieres first nationally distributed kids' show with Native American lead MORE (Alaska) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisRepublicans scramble to contain Trump fallout McConnell says Trump is not a racist, but calls for better rhetoric GOP senator: 'Outrageous' to say Trump's tweets about Democratic congresswomen are racist 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 Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke Republicans make U-turn on health care Trump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid MORE (Tenn.), Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump's no racist; he's an equal opportunity offender Lawmakers introduce bill to block U.S. companies from doing business with Huawei GOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm MORE (Utah), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate ratifies long-stalled tax treaty On The Money: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency | Tech giants on defensive at antitrust hearing | Democrats ask Labor Department to investigate Amazon warehouses The buck stops here: How to restore accountability to the federal regulatory system MORE (Ky.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump administration denies temporary immigrant status to Venezuelans in US Colombian official urges more help for Venezuelan migrants Lawmakers introduce bill to block U.S. companies from doing business with Huawei 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 GrahamThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet Why Trump's bigoted tropes won't work in 2020 The Memo: Toxic 2020 is unavoidable conclusion from Trump tweets 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 JohnsonAlarm sounds over census cybersecurity concerns Ex-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker takes job as president of conservative group, won't seek office soon Democratic Senate hopes hinge on Trump tide MORE (R-Wis.) and Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment White House, Congress inch toward debt, budget deal GOP struggles to find backup plan for avoiding debt default 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 DainesTwo GOP lawmakers back Trump's comments on Democratic lawmakers: 'I'll pay for their tickets out of this country' Former Navy officer, teacher enters race to unseat GOP senator in Montana Democratic senators want candidates to take Swalwell's hint and drop out 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) TesterTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi looks to squash fight with progressives Democratic senators want candidates to take Swalwell's hint and drop out 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 ThuneTrump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report White House abruptly cancels Trump meeting with GOP leaders McConnell says Trump is not a racist, but calls for better rhetoric MORE (S.D.). 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerLawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Trump administration denies temporary immigrant status to Venezuelans in US Colombian official urges more help for Venezuelan migrants 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.