White House tries to avert Senate defeat on border emergency

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House labored Tuesday to prevent a high-profile congressional rejection of President Donald Trump's declaration of a national emergency at the southwest border, or at least reduce the number of Republican senators joining Democrats to thwart him.

Vice President Mike Pence met privately at the Capitol with five GOP senators as Republicans sought a way to bolster support for Trump in a showdown vote set for Thursday. Since the Democratic-run House voted last month to block Trump, Senate passage would send the resolution to the White House, where it would face a certain veto.

Congress would be highly unlikely to muster the two-thirds majorities needed to eventually override a veto. But final congressional approval of the resolution on Thursday would highlight a clash in which Trump was being forced to protect his signature campaign promise — building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — by vetoing legislation sent to him by a Republican-led Senate. Congress has never before voted to overturn a presidentially declared emergency.

"They'd like to win and short of that they don't want a jailbreak" with large numbers of Republicans defecting, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, an adviser to Senate GOP leadership, said of the eleventh-hour White House lobbying effort.

Thursday's vote forces GOP senators to choose uncomfortably between defying Trump and alienating his conservative voters or opening the door to future presidents using emergency declarations to spend money on priorities that Congress opposes.

GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and others were in discussions with the White House about related legislation that would curb the ability of future presidents to declare national emergencies. Trump proclaimed an emergency last month to divert $3.6 billion from military construction projects to build border barriers after Congress voted to provide him with less than $1.4 billion for barrier construction in the budget.

If Trump would agree to sign legislation handcuffing future emergency declarations, more GOP senators might back his border emergency declaration in Thursday's vote. In talks held last weekend, Republican senators tried to encourage the White House to support lawmakers' effort to rein in presidential emergencies.

National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd:

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UNITED STATES - MARCH 09: Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, is interviewed by CQ in Washington, March 9, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: (L-R) Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies Steven Camarota, President of the National Border Patrol Council Brandon Judd, Director of the Remembrance Project Maria Espinoza, Agnes Gibboney, mother whose son was killed by an undocumented immigrant, and Seth Stodder, Secretary for Boarder of Immigration and Trade Policy, testify during a hearing before the Subcommittee on National Security of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee April 27, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The subcommittee held a hearing on 'The Border Wall: Strengthening our National Security.' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: President of the National Border Patrol Council Brandon Judd testifies during a hearing before the Subcommittee on National Security of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee April 27, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The subcommittee held a hearing on 'The Border Wall: Strengthening our National Security.' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: (L-R) Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw, National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd, Center for Immigration Studies fellow Andrew Arthur and Truman Center President and CEO Michael Breen are sworn in before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's National Security Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. The witnesses gave testimony about a caravan of Central American migrants that drew President Donald Trump's ire and was stopped as it moved through Mexico earlier this month. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd (L) and Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw visit before testifying to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's National Security Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. The witnesses gave testimony about a caravan of Central American migrants that drew President Donald Trump's ire and was stopped as it moved through Mexico earlier this month. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: (L-R) Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw, National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd, Center for Immigration Studies fellow Andrew Arthur and Truman Center President and CEO Michael Breen testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's National Security Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. The witnesses gave testimony about a caravan of Central American migrants that drew President Donald Trump's ire and was stopped as it moved through Mexico earlier this month. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump listens to Brandon Judd, President of the National Border Patrol Council, speak about border security in the briefing room at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 3, 2019. - President Trump gave a statement on the government shutdown and border wall in what was his first time behind the podium in the White House briefing room. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP) (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, speaks while U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a White House press briefing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Trump congratulated Nancy Pelosi on her 'tremendous achievement' while he also pushed for funds for a border wall. Photographer: Tasos Katopodis/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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There were indications that the White House might be gaining Republican allies for Thursday's vote, but it was unclear whether there would be enough to prevail. Republicans control the Senate 53-47, meaning that just four GOP defections would be enough to ensure passage of the resolution blocking Trump's border emergency.

Four Republicans have said they would join Democrats and back the measure: Tillis, Maine's Susan Collins, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski and Kentucky's Rand Paul.

While Paul said earlier this month that there were "at least 10" GOP senators prepared to oppose Trump's emergency, he told reporters Tuesday that he now expects fewer defections. GOP senators are "being beaten up right now" to fall in line, he said. "So if you see anybody that's got blood dripping out of their ear, they may be changing," he said.

Murkowski said in an interview that she would consider backing legislation "that actually does constrain" the president's emergency powers, but added, "At this point in time, we don't have it."

Under a 1976 law, presidents are given wide discretion in determining when a national emergency has occurred. Congress can vote to block an emergency declaration, but the two-thirds majorities required by the Constitution to overcome presidential vetoes makes it hard for lawmakers to prevail.

Republicans said under Lee's proposal, a presidential emergency would last 30 days unless Congress votes to extend it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters that Lee's measure would apply prospectively, not to Trump's current border emergency.

Democrats and some Republicans say Trump was abusing the emergency law by issuing a declaration to access money Congress had explicitly voted to deny him. Trump had repeatedly said Mexico would pay for the wall, which is not happening.

A vote on Lee's plan could well occur after Congress returns from a recess later this month.

Pence met Tuesday with Lee, Tillis and Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, said an administration official and Senate aide who weren't authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The meeting was requested by Tillis, and Pence largely was there to listen, the administration official said. Pence said he would bring their thoughts back to the president but urged them to stand with Trump in Thursday's vote.

The White House says that Trump is within his rights to declare the national emergency and that opposing him will be seen as a vote against border security — which could play poorly in their home states.

The strongest chance of blocking Trump's border emergency is likely several lawsuits filed by Democratic state attorneys general, environmental groups and others.

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Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.

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