Vice President Mike Pence faced a wall of resistance from Senate Republicans on Tuesday as he tried to sell President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration on the southern border, according to multiple GOP sources.
The pointed reception at the GOP lunch raised further doubts among Senate Republicans that the administration will be able to hold down defections on a crucial vote to block the president in the coming weeks.
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“There was a lot of passion from some of our members. And I think there is some skepticism. People are just genuinely concerned that we’re doing the right thing,” said one Republican senator, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Pence told Republicans that Trump’s plan to unilaterally shift billions in military funding to border wall construction was not like President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration, according to four attendees. He argued Trump is using an existing law and money approved by Congress, unlike Obama’s efforts to shield some immigrants from deportation.
The majority of the Senate GOP backs Trump, and many of them urged the party to back the president on Tuesday. But it appeared Pence’s pitch did little to move wavering GOP senators.
“I didn’t think his argument was very good. ‘We’ve got a crisis, that means the president can do this.’ That’s essentially the argument,” said a second Republican senator who is undecided on whether to stand with Trump.
As many as 10 Senate Republicans could support a resolution of disapproval if a vote were held today, according to four GOP senators who attended the lunch and heard Republican senators’ complaints. That’s far more than the four needed to pass the legislation on a simple majority and force Trump to issue the first veto of his presidency. Currently there are three public “yes” votes in the Senate GOP conference.
The Democratic House is set to approve the measure first on Tuesday.
“We have some people that have some pretty strong views on this subject… some hard questions asked, but that’s kind of what we needed to happen I think. Our guys just really want to know more about where the administration is coming from,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the GOP whip. “They’re expressing their concern. And that’s good.”
Trump’s supporters are confident that at least there aren’t 20 Republicans who will join 47 Senate Democrats to muster a veto-proof majority. Still, a rebuke by a large bloc of GOP senators would be an embarrassing result for the White House, and Tuesday’s meeting with Pence underscored the tensions lingering between the White House and Senate Republicans.
As the vice president stumped for Trump’s national emergency maneuver, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky argued to Pence that his party would be ceding the high ground on the issue, one of about a half-dozen Republicans to raise questions about the move during the lunch.
“The vice president pushed back,” said a source familiar with the exchange. Pence “gave the explanation that this diverges from DACA,” the source said, referring to an Obama administration action protecting some undocumented immigrants. “We would characterize it as a very productive discussion.”
“Sen. Paul had a friendly discussion with the vice president, that if we do go down this path it will damage our ability to be considered the party of rule of law,” said a Paul spokesman.
Though Trump could face a humbling setback from his own party if undecided GOP senators break against him, he and Pence still have time to change some minds. The vote will likely not take place for a couple weeks.
Pence did have some success in shoring up the president’s position, earning plaudits from GOP senators like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Kennedy of Louisiana, who said he was persuasive and convincing in arguing that the border is in a true state of emergency.
Pence is “hoping that people will rally around the president. Senators are going to vote the way they are going to vote. I think this really helped,” Graham said.
“We talked extensively about the factual and the legal basis,” Kennedy added. “I’m going to support the president. I think he’s right factually and I think he’s right statutorily. … There were some people who raised questions about it who will ultimately end up voting for [the disapproval resolution]. I’m not saying all of them.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who previously warned the president against declaring the emergency, acknowledged Tuesday that there was a “fulsome discussion” at the lunch between GOP senators and Pence and Justice Department officials.
And the Kentucky Republican said he himself is not sure about the legality of the national emergency declaration, though he has previously vowed to support the president in a floor vote.
“The [DOJ] lawyer was there to make his arguments. There were some counter arguments. I haven’t reached a total conclusion,” McConnell told reporters. “I personally couldn’t handicap the outcome at this point … but we will certainly be voting on it.”
More than a half-dozen Republican senators are mulling voting for the resolution, though they are hesitant to become the deciding vote to defy Trump and make an announcement before they know exactly what they are voting on and how it might affect military projects back home.
Kennedy said the administration is going to adjust military spending to “backfill” projects that are affected by the spending shifts, which could alleviate some senators’ parochial concerns. Attendees said there were some GOP demands on Tuesday for the administration to produce a more detailed blueprint of which projects will be affected.
But Republicans who are resisting the emergency declaration are generally doing so on broader, constitutional grounds.
Undecided senators were mostly non-committal on how they will vote in interviews on Tuesday. The strongest remarks came from Paul, but even he wasn’t ready to join GOP Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in pledging to vote for the resolution.
“I haven’t looked at the bill yet, but I am against emergency powers,” Paul said.
“I am very worried prudentially about the slippery slope that could occur, emboldening future democratic presidents to implement radical policies contrary to law and contrary to the constitution,” added Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is undecided and has privately voiced skepticism of Trump’s declaration.
And it was clear that Trump was doing little to convince the rank and file, despite a tweet Monday urging the party to hang together.
“I’m getting to the bottom of some stuff. But I don’t know yet,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) of his stance. He spoke to Trump over the weekend about disaster relief for his state and said the border emergency never came up.
Tillis said he contacted the White House before writing an op-ed Monday that put Trump one vote away from defeat in the Senate, but that administration officials didn’t make a huge effort to dissuade him.
“I didn’t speak with the president, but we spoke with a number of his staff. I don’t surprise people, so they knew what our position is going to be,” Tilli said. “They understood.”
James Arkin and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.