Debate over diverted Pentagon projects to fund Trump’s wall

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Top defense leaders are expected to get a barrage of questions when they face worried lawmakers on Capitol Hill for the first time since the Pentagon spelled out the military construction projects that could lose funding this year to pay for President Donald Trump’s border wall.

A number of Congress members have already expressed unhappiness with Pentagon plans that could divert funding from as many as 150 projects, totaling more than $4.3 billion, across the country and the world.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is slated to testify Tuesday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing along with Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Early last week Shanahan sent Congress a detailed list of projects that could be tapped.

Defense officials have repeatedly said that any projects that lose funding this year could be refunded next year. But some lawmakers have said they oppose any use of military construction money for barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Both the House and Senate voted to overturn Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to use construction money to fund the wall. Trump vetoed that bill.

A number of lawmakers also objected to the Pentagon’s assumption that Congress would simply refund the affected projects next year, calling it a political maneuver to get Congress to pay for the wall.

“We take our oversight role very seriously, and will act as necessary to defend Congress’ constitutional prerogatives in this matter,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the chairman of the House panel. He said the committee looks forward to hearing Shanahan explain “how he intends to pilfer the military construction accounts, circumvent the intended nature of the law, while simultaneously abusing the trust of the American people.”

Other lawmakers, such as the entire New Jersey congressional delegation, have written to Shanahan to defend the projects in their state. In their letter, they told Shanahan that they “adamantly oppose” diverting any money for a border barrier, adding that Congress, not the executive branch, has the power to appropriate funds for specific projects.

A plan to spend $41 million at the Picatinny Arsenal’s munitions disassembly complex in New Jersey is on the list of projects that could be affected.

The list Shanahan sent to the Hill included more than 400 projects worth about $13 billion. But Shanahan has said that any money for military housing or barracks would not be touched, as well as any projects that will have contracts awarded before the end of this fiscal year, Sept. 30. When those projects are removed, about 150 remain.

Shanahan has also said that projects deemed necessary for military readiness or other high priorities will be protected. But those haven’t been identified yet.

On Monday, Army Secretary Mark Esper told The Associated Press that he and other military service leaders will go through the list and work to protect critical projects.

“I will prioritize based on readiness, lethality and things like that,” he said, noting that something like a training complex could be protected if it’s designed to help soldiers face emerging threats from competitors such as Russia and China.

Esper added, however, that there are clearly some projects that could be used.

“I can tell you what’s not a priority. It’s the parking garage, the cemetery,” Esper said, referring to two projects planned at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York.

The garage could be affected, but the cemetery money would not be touched because the contract award date is June, and would therefore be exempt under rules set up by Shanahan.

At least half of the $4.3 billion in vulnerable projects would affect U.S. military bases overseas or in Puerto Rico and Guam. And they include a vast cross-section of facilities, ranging from schools and maintenance facilities to shooting ranges, a cybersecurity center and a military working dog kennel.

Meanwhile, Shanahan has authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to begin planning and building 57 miles of 18-foot-high fencing in Yuma, Arizona, and El Paso, Texas, along the U.S. border with Mexico. The Pentagon says it will divert up to $1 billion to support the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection. The funding would also go toward installing lighting and constructing roads in those areas.
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Trump will govern without Congress

President Donald Trump speaks about border security in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, March 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump’s first congressional veto was more than a milestone: It signals a new era of ever more fraught relations between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Trump’s legislative agenda was stymied even before his party lost unified control of Washington at the start of the year and he has grown increasingly frustrated by his dealings with Congress, believing little of substance will get done by the end of his first term and feeling just as pessimistic about the second, according to White House aides, campaign staffers and outside allies.

Republicans in Congress, for their part, are demonstrating new willingness to part ways with the president. On the Senate vote Thursday rejecting the president’s national emergency declaration to get border wall funding, 12 senators defected and joined Democrats in voting against Trump.

The GOP-led Senate’s 59-41 vote against Trump’s declaration was just the latest blow as tensions flare on multiple fronts.

Trump tweeted one word after the vote: “VETO!” And he eagerly flexed that muscle on Friday for the first time, hoping to demonstrate resolve on fulfilling his signature 2016 campaign pledge.

Leading up to Thursday’s dramatic vote of rebuke, Republican senators had repeatedly agitated for compromise deals that would give them political cover to support Trump despite their concerns that he was improperly circumventing Congress. But the president was never convinced that any of the proposals ensured the resolution would be defeated, said a White House official who demanded anonymity to discuss internal thinking.

A last-ditch trip to the White House by a group of senators Wednesday night only irritated Trump, who felt they were offering little in the way of new solutions.

As the vote neared, Trump repeatedly made clear that it was about party fealty and border security and suggested that voting against him could be perilous.

“It’s going to be a great election issue,” he predicted.

Looking past the veto, Trump’s plans for future collaboration with Congress appear limited. With the exception of pushing for approval of Trump’s trade deal with Mexico and Canada, the president and his allies see little benefit for Trump in investing more political capital on Capitol Hill. Trump ran against Washington in 2016, and they fully expect him to do so again.

Instead, the president — who once declared that “I alone can fix it” before getting hamstrung by the morass in Washington — is exploring opportunities to pursue executive action to work around lawmakers as he did with his emergency declaration on the border wall. He is directing aides to find other areas where he can act — or at least be perceived as acting — without Congress, including infrastructure and reducing drug prices.

Trump made his intentions clear recently as he assessed that Democrats would rather investigate him than cooperate on policy, declaring: “Basically, they’ve started the campaign. So the campaign begins.”

His dealings with Congress were inconsistent even when Republicans controlled both chambers, and he has made few overtures to Democrats since they won control of the House.

Trump initially predicted he could work across the aisle, but that sentiment cooled after the bitter government shutdown fight and in the face of mounting investigations. His frustrations underscore the difficulty the Washington neophyte and former business executive has had with the laborious process of lawmaking, and the challenges yet to come.

The White House argues there are still opportunities for collaboration, listing the ratification of Trump’s renegotiated North American free trade agreement, known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, as his top legislative priority for the coming two years. But passage is anything but assured.

Trump’s ire has been directed at both parties for some time, aides said. He was upset with the Republicans’ performance during the recent congressional hearing featuring his former fixer Michael Cohen, telling allies that he was not impressed with their questioning.

Trump’s budget proposal this past week was viewed as a shot at Democrats, with its proposals to increase funding for the border wall and cut to social safety net programs. The plan, which had little in the way of new or bipartisan ideas, was declared dead on arrival by Democratic House leaders.

Further stoking tensions, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to address an upcoming joint meeting of Congress, in what was widely seen as a rebuke of Trump’s criticism of the trans-Atlantic alliance. The invitation was backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and followed votes earlier this year in which Republicans voiced opposition to Trump’s plans to draw down U.S. troops in Syria and Afghanistan.

Presidential complaints about Congress — and efforts to find a work-around — are nothing new.

Former President Barack Obama in 2014 deployed what became known as his “pen and phone” strategy.

“I’ve got a pen to take executive actions where Congress won’t, and I’ve got a telephone to rally folks around the country on this mission,” he said.

Obama’s strategy yielded years of executive orders and regulatory action — but many proved ephemeral when Trump took office and started deconstructing them.

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Pelosi slams door on Senate compromise for Trump

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks at a memorial event for Kasur Gyari, former special envoy of Dalay Lama to the U.S., on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 12, 2019. (REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “no way” Wednesday to a last-minute Republican Senate deal that would leave President Donald Trump’s “emergency declaration” to use funding from other allocations to build his controversial “border wall.”

Pelosi said the House of Representatives will not consider a Republican bill to amend the federal national emergencies law to limit future presidencial claims of an emergency but would allow Trump’s one to stand.

“Republican Senators are proposing new legislation to allow the President to violate the Constitution just this once in order to give themselves cover,” Pelosi said in a statement. “The House will not take up this legislation to give President Trump a pass.”

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Trump starts a new border wall fight

President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget outline arrives on Capitol Hill at the House Budget Committee, in Washington, Monday morning March 11, 2019. Trump’s new budget calls for billions more for his border wall, with steep cuts in domestic programs but increases for military spending. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Donald Trump is reviving his border wall fight, preparing a new budget that will seek $8.6 billion for his signature project, impose steep spending cuts to other domestic programs and set the stage for another fiscal battle.

Budget documents like the one Trump is releasing Monday are often seen as just a starting point of negotiation. Fresh off the longest government shutdown in history, Trump’s 2020 proposal shows he is eager to confront Congress again to boost defense spending and cut $2.7 trillion in nondefense spending over a decade.

Titled “A Budget for a Better America: Promises Kept. Taxpayers First,” Trump’s proposal “embodies fiscal responsibility,” said Russ Vought, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Vought said the administration has “prioritized reining in reckless Washington spending” and shows “we can return to fiscal sanity.”

Speaking on CNBC Monday, Vought confirmed that the $8.6 billion border request was part of Trump’s spending blueprint for the 2020 budget year, which begins Oct. 1. It would pay for hundreds of miles of new barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Vought said “the border situation is deteriorating by the day” with “record numbers of apprehensions.”

An administration official said Trump’s budget proposes increasing defense spending to $750 billion — and standing up the new Space Force as a military branch — while reducing nondefense accounts by 5 percent, with cuts recommended to safety-net programs used by many Americans.

The plan sticks to budget caps that both parties have routinely broken in recent years and promises to come into balance in 15 years, relying in part on economic growth that may be uncertain.

The official was not authorized to discuss budget details publicly before Monday’s release of the plan and spoke on condition of anonymity.

While pushing down spending in some areas, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the proposal will seek to increase funding in others to align with the president’s priorities, according to one official.

The administration will invest more than $80 billion for veterans services, a nearly 10 percent increase from current levels, including “significant” investments in rehabilitation, employment assistance and suicide prevention.

It will also increase resources to fight the opioid epidemic with money for prevention, treatment, research and recovery, the administration said. And it seeks to shift some federal student loan costs to colleges and universities.

The proposal will also include $1 billion for a child care fund that would seek to improve access to care for underserved populations, a White House official confirmed. The one-time allocation is championed by the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, who has focused on economic advancement for women in her role as a White House adviser.

By adhering to strict budget caps, Trump is signaling a fight ahead. The president has resisted big, bipartisan budget deals that break the caps — threatening to veto one last year — but Congress will need to find agreement on spending levels to avoid another federal shutdown in fall. To stay within the caps, the budget shifts a portion of the defense spending to an overseas contingency fund, which some fiscal hawks will view as an accounting gimmick.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Trump’s budget “points a steady glide path” toward lower spending and borrowing as a share of the nation’s economy. He also told “Fox News Sunday” that there was no reason to “obsess” about deficits, and expressed confidence that economic growth would top 3 percent in 2019 and beyond. Others have predicted lower growth.

But the Democratic chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, called the proposed cuts to essential services “dangerous.” He said Trump added nearly $2 trillion to deficits with the GOP’s “tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations, and now it appears his budget asks the American people to pay the price.”

The border wall, though, remains a signature issue for the president and is poised to stay at the forefront of his agenda, even though Congress has resisted giving him more money for it.

Leading Democrats immediately rejected the proposal.

“Congress refused to fund his wall and he was forced to admit defeat and reopen the government. The same thing will repeat itself if he tries this again,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York. They said the money “would be better spent on rebuilding America.”

In seeking $8.6 billion for more than 300 miles of new border wall, the budget request would more than double the $8.1 billion already potentially available to the president for the wall after he declared a national emergency at the border last month in order to circumvent Congress — although there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to use that money if he faces a legal challenge, as is expected. The standoff over the wall led to a 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history.

Along with border wall money, the proposed budget will also increase funding to increase the “manpower” of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and Customs and Border Patrol at a time when many Democrats are calling for cuts — or even the elimination — of those areas. The budget also proposes policy changes to end sanctuary cities, the administration said.

The budget would arrive as the Senate readies to vote this week to terminate Trump’s national emergency declaration. The Democratic-led House already did so, and a handful of Republican senators, uneasy over what they see as an overreach of executive power, are expected to join Senate Democrats in following suit. Congress appears to have enough votes to reject Trump’s declaration but not enough to overturn a veto.

Trump invoked the emergency declaration after Congress approved nearly $1.4 billion for border barriers, far less than the $5.7 billion he wanted. In doing so, he can potentially tap an additional $3.6 billion from military accounts and shift it to building the wall. That’s causing discomfort on Capitol Hill, where even the president’s Republican allies are protective of their power to decide how to allocate federal dollars. Lawmakers are trying to guard money that’s already been approved for military projects in their states — for base housing or other improvements — for the wall. The administration is promising to backfill those funds, senators said.

The wall with Mexico punctuated Trump’s campaign for the White House, and it’s expected to again be featured in his 2020 re-election effort. He used to say Mexico would pay for it, but Mexico has refused to do so.

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Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in Palm Beach, Florida, and Andrew Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.

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Can GOP find a way out of Trump’s border wall mess?

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

One by one, the Republican senators floated their ideas. They were trying to find a way out of a seemingly impossible dilemma: how to support President Donald Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall without approving the national emergency declaration he invoked to build it.

And one by one, during a private lunchtime meeting that ran hot at times, they found no easy answers.

As a deadline for voting looms, it’s increasingly clear that Republican senators are deeply uncomfortable with Trump’s use of executive power to build the wall and desperate to devise a way around the vote.

Senators know whatever they decide will make history. It’s the first time Congress is voting to terminate a national emergency. Even if Trump vetoes the measure, as expected, it will set precedent for other money grabs by future occupants of the White House.

This is why they tried to talk Trump out of invoking national emergency powers and why they’re now in a no-win situation as they prepare to vote.

“People are caught between the need for border security — and agreeing with what the president’s trying to do — but not how he’s trying to do it,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the senior-most Republican senator.

In the days ahead, senators will be required to vote on a resolution, already approved by Democrats in the House, to terminate Trump’s executive action.

Senate Republicans don’t have the votes to stop what Trump is doing, nor do they necessarily want to. Many of their constituents want the wall, and senators, especially those up for re-election in 2020, don’t want to run afoul of the president whose supporters they’ll need.

But they’re trying at least to provide some distance between Trump’s effort to build the wall and what many see as executive overreach that could echo for years to come.

Trump, in a speech Saturday to conservatives, said: “A lot of people talk about precedent, precedent, that if we do this the Democrats will use national emergency powers for something we don’t want. They are going to do that anyway folks. The best way to stop that is to make sure I win the election.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, presented colleagues during the lunchtime meeting with a proposal to revisit the 1976 National Emergencies Act, clawing back some of the authority Congress ceded decades ago that paved the way for Trump’s action.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has been working on a plan suggesting Trump could do away with his declaration completely by simply repurposing existing money to build the wall rather than invoking the emergency orders to take more dollars.

Other senators are swapping other ideas.

“This has been a little bit of a wake-up call,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the GOP leadership.

Cornyn said most lawmakers were simply not aware that Congress over the years has been “so willing to delegate our authority” to the president. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some changes are made,” he said.

A guiding touchstone for some has been to draw on the principles of a conservative giant: What would the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia do?

Republicans have railed against executive reach long before Trump. They criticized President Barack Obama’s executive actions, particularly those involving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that shielded young immigrants in the country illegally, known as Dreamers, from deportation.

Now, though, Republicans are loath to allow Trump to go even further, by encroaching on the authority the Constitution specifically grants Congress for appropriating funds.

Trump’s declaration allows him to dip into billions of Defense Department dollars for already-approved military construction projects and shift that money, along with other funds, toward the border wall. Senators worry what the next presidents will do, invoking such power grabs for Democratic priorities to fight climate change or lessen the strains of income inequality.

“Many folks don’t like the idea of the precedent it sets, but they realize it’s the centerpiece of President Trump’s (2016 campaign) – what he ran on – and it causes a little bit of heartburn,” said Sen. Mike Braun, a newly elected conservative from Indiana.

“I kind of would fall in that camp,” he said. Braun said he probably will back the president. He supports Trump and believes there’s a crisis on the border. But he said the reach of executive authority does “give you pause.”

Senators are quickly running into the procedural roadblocks that show how difficult it will be to change course.

Because the resolution is a first of its kind, efforts to alter it are posing all sorts of parliamentary questions that have yet to be answered. Even if the senators can agree with an alternative plan, they’ll also have to clear the procedural hurdles that so far have been high. And, for now, it’s unclear if they can come up with an idea that does both.

“There’re procedural problems that we haven’t figured out yet,” Cornyn acknowledged.

When Vice President Mike Pence and administration officials visited senators privately on Tuesday to buck up support for Trump’s action, it provoked a lively discussion.

The White House officials made the case for the border emergency and insisted Trump’s action would not open the floodgates for future presidents to take similar steps for their priorities.

The senators peppered the vice president with questions. And the next day at their own private lunch — and in public — they started airing their work arounds.

“Everybody’s blaming the president,” Grassley said. “The president doesn’t deserve any blame. Congress delegated this authority to him. So we’re delegating away our legislative authority. We’ve probably done too much of it.”

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AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro has covered Congress since 2010.

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