Pentagon wants Congress to replenish funds Trump taps for border wall

Wasserman Schultz calls plan an end-run around Congress

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the House Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee, described the Pentagon’s plan as “circumventing Congress to get funding for the wall.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Pentagon every year comes to Congress to defend its ever-growing budget, highlighting the decrepit military installations and decades-old equipment that must be refurbished or replaced to defend the nation.

But now, Pentagon officials are telling lawmakers that diverting dollars from defense projects to build President Donald Trump’s desired border wall is justified and won’t weaken the military — so long as Congress replenishes the accounts Trump could tap to build the wall.

“Some current military construction projects may be deferred” if military construction money is used to pay for the wall, Robert H. McMahon, assistant secretary of Defense for sustainment, told the House Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday. “The fiscal year 2020 president’s budget request will include a request for funds to replenish funding for these projects.”

In other words, Trump is betting on Congress to replenish those accounts in the fiscal 2020 spending bill.

Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the subcommittee’s chairwoman, called the plan an end-run around Congress.

“I’m not sure what kind of chumps you think my colleagues and I are,” Wasserman Schultz told McMahon. “What you’re doing is circumventing Congress to get funding for the wall, which you couldn’t get during the conference process, and instead coming back and trying to get us to replace the funding during the appropriations cycle.”

Georgia Democrat Sanford D. Bishop Jr. reminded McMahon that the administration’s upcoming proposal for fiscal 2020 funding is not guaranteed.

“The president’s budget request is not law,” Bishop said. “It’s not assured to be appropriated.”

Republicans on the panel largely sided with the administration on the need for more border security, but not if it comes at the expense of the military.

“Additional funding is needed to address humanitarian and security crisis on our southern border,” said Rep. John Carter of Texas, the panel’s top Republican. “While I stand with the president on this important national security issue, I will not do so at the expense of the soldiers and families at Ft. Hood.”

Trump’s plan to fund the wall includes $3.6 billion in unobligated military construction funding. But the administration would only tap that funding after it spends $1.375 billion appropriated for wall construction in fiscal 2019, $601 million from the Treasury Department’s asset forfeiture fund and $2.5 billion from the Pentagon’s counterdrug account.

According to the Pentagon, some $13.3 billion in “milcon” appropriations remained unobligated, or not committed to specific projects, as of Sept. 30, 2018. That’s before the $11.3 billion Congress provided for the current fiscal year.

The Pentagon is awaiting word from Homeland Security on how it would spend the border wall funds and is currently working to identify which military construction funds could most easily be diverted, McMahon said.

The projects most likely to lose funding are those that pose no “operational readiness risks if deferred,” new projects that had been awarded in the last six months of the fiscal year, and “recapitalization projects of existing facilities that can temporarily be deferred for a period of months,” McMahon said.

None of the projects, McMahon said, would be canceled.

Also watch: Trump announces national emergency on border, despite likely legal challenge

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