The Next Border-Wall Question: Where Will the Pentagon Get the Money?

Senators from both parties want to ensure projects in their states don't lose funding.

Camp Lejeune, N.C.
AP Photo/Allen Breed
March 15, 2019, 4:56 p.m.

All politics is local, including for votes on an international border wall thousands of miles away.

President Trump on Friday exercised his first veto to negate a congressional resolution terminating his emergency declaration to secure the border with Mexico. The legislative rebuff’s support in both chambers of Congress fell short of veto-proof majorities, meaning the declaration will likely remain in effect even after Congress reconvenes from a weeklong recess.

Members of Congress are now tasked with doing all they can to protect their own states’ projects that could serve as the source of funds. But the Defense Department has yet to tell lawmakers which projects would lose funding, prompting a rush to protect home interests.

“These critical projects in all of our states are at risk,” Sen. Tom Udall, a Democratic appropriator from border-state New Mexico, said on the floor ahead of his resolution’s 59-41 passage. “We each need to think about our states and the people we were sent here to represent.”

Trump last month invoked the National Emergencies Act in hopes of reallocating $3.6 billion from “unobligated” military construction money, or funds that have been appropriated by Congress but not promised to specific contractors, in order to pay for physical barriers on the southern border.

House appropriators identified about $8.2 billion in unobligated funds for military construction projects. Of that amount, $4.9 billion is for projects in U.S. states.

“The 3.6 would in fact come from projects previously authorized and appropriated by Congress,” Pentagon comptroller David Norquist acknowledged during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday. “We would not touch those that dealt with family housing or construction.”

Despite lawmakers’ repeated requests, the Pentagon has not provided Congress a definitive list of projects. Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee in a letter last week set a Friday deadline for Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to identify “projects deemed less important than building a wall along the southern border, along with the military criteria used to justify those decisions,” and “an addendum to include any military construction and housing projects with unobligated balances not listed” in congressional research.

A spokesperson for Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, a signatory to the letter, said on Friday that the Illinois Democrat had not received a response.

The Senate Armed Services Committee continued to press Shanahan in a hearing before the vote Thursday, with Sen. Angus King asking defense officials to ensure that projects authorized and appropriated in the recent military spending bill would not be affected.

“I know of projects in New England that were funded in this bill,” said King, an independent from Maine. “Can I be assured that they’re safe, that they’re not going to be deferred or canceled to find this 3.6?”

Shanahan said he did not have a “final list” of vulnerable unobligated projects, but he told ranking member Jack Reed that he would provide him with it by the end of the day.

“That’s the deal,” Shanahan told Reed, who carefully spelled out what he was looking for. Later that evening, Shanahan told Reed that he could not provide him the list.

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a commonwealth dependent on military spending, said he felt “sandbagged” by the Pentagon, given that the information could be relevant for senators voting on Trump’s emergency declaration.

"I don't think [Trump] should be able to declare a non-military emergency and just put a spigot into the Pentagon budget that he can drain ... for however long he wants,” Kaine said after the hearing.

Democrats will continue to challenge the declaration “legislatively or in court,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Thursday. A multistate lawsuit spearheaded by Democratic attorneys general challenges the emergency declaration on constitutional grounds, and Schumer said Democrats intend to bring up a vote of termination every six months as long as the declaration is in force.

“We intend to use every means we can to not allow the president to shift money around when he’s not allowed to,” Schumer said.

In the meantime, senators scrambled to protect their individual states’ priorities. Sen. Martha McSally, a recently appointed Republican from Arizona, said that she learned after discussions with Shanahan, Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence that “no Arizona military construction projects from Fiscal Year 2019 will be impacted.” Luke Air Force Base in Maricopa County is expecting $40 million to support F-35A fighter jets.

A spokesperson for Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who quietly voted against the resolution, told Denver-based KMGH-TV that the administration similarly assured the Republican that no appropriations this fiscal year to Colorado projects would go toward the international border construction.

However, Shanahan said during the Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday that he had not assured any member of Congress that projects would not be affected. The Arizona Democratic Party, with an eye on McSally’s 2020 campaign for the remainder of the late Sen. John McCain’s term, questioned why “McSally failed to provide any proof” to her claim.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire similarly pressed Trump and Shanahan on the fate of funding for the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Democrats in Shaheen’s home state took note and called GOP Gov. Chris Sununu “cowardly” for, according to the Union Leader, equivocating on protecting shipyard funds in favor of border security. Sununu on Wednesday did not rule out a bid to unseat Shaheen next year rather than seek another two-year term.

“Sununu’s loyalty to Trump over New Hampshire is a disgrace to our state,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley. “Sununu has placed himself at the far-right fringe of this party instead of joining our federal delegation in defending the shipyard."

McSally and Gardner were far from the only electorally vulnerable senators to support the resolution in order to support Trump’s broader border-security agenda. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, after writing a Washington Post op-ed opposing “providing the executive with more ways to bypass Congress,” nonetheless joined the majority of Republicans in opposition to it, citing conversations with the White House.

“When you care more about standing by the White House than standing up for your own state, you’ve lost your way,” said Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Senators like Cory Gardner, Thom Tillis, and Martha McSally have given voters another reason to show them the door.”

Senators on Thursday brought up multiple projects in Tillis’s home state that stand to lose funding due to the emergency declaration, including Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune.

Other states’ projects are also on the line. Senate Appropriations Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy said on the floor Thursday morning that bases and camps recovering from hurricane damage and facilities to support children and families of service members were in the crosshairs. “Congress chose to fund these projects over his ineffective, wasteful wall,” Leahy said.

Sens. Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown of Ohio also issued warnings from the floor on Thursday about the possibility that the Buckeye State could lose as much as $68.4 million. Congress designated funds for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to build a new complex at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, and Camp Ravenna was slated to construct a gun range.

Portman, one of the 12 Republicans who voted to terminate the emergency declaration, on Thursday told National Journal that “we’ve asked for the list” of affected projects but “never received it.”

“They’re all really important projects for readiness, so I hope they continue,” Portman said.

If Trump decides to nominate Shanahan to his position permanently, the Pentagon’s stonewalling on military construction could politicize the vote. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democratic appropriator, confirmed that he would vote against Shanahan’s confirmation if the issue remains unresolved, and described plans to backfill deferred projects in 2020 as “Three-card Monte in slow motion.” Schatz’s home state of Hawaii houses projects worth about $311.4 million in unobligated funds.

Trump’s previous Defense secretary, James Mattis, was confirmed 99 to 1.

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