GOP bristles over plan to shift military funding to border wall

GOP concerns are bubbling up over the administration's plans to divert billions in military construction money as part of President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump in new ad: 'The death toll is still rising.' 'The president is playing golf' Brazil surpasses Russia with second-highest coronavirus case count in the world Trump slams Sessions: 'You had no courage & ruined many lives' MORE's national emergency declaration.

As part of an effort to pull together roughly $8 billion for the U.S.-Mexico border wall, the administration will redirect $3.6 billion originally appropriated for military construction projects across the country.

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Trump’s decision has sparked bipartisan backlash on Capitol Hill, where Republicans are openly concerned that the president is blurring the separation of powers and attempting to override Congress’s government funding decisions.

GOP Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Surgeon General stresses need to invest much more in public health infrastructure, during and after COVID-19; Fauci hopeful vaccine could be deployed in December Republicans push for help for renewable energy, fossil fuel industries Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day MORE (Maine) told reporters to “keep in mind the irony” of the president deciding to take money away from military construction projects that were part of his previous budget requests.

“We had military leaders come before us and make the case for each of these projects as being vital to our national security and it seems to me very shortsighted and harmful to our national security … for that money to be used for other purposes,” she said.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSenators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day McConnell gives two vulnerable senators a boost with vote on outdoor recreation bill Five unanswered questions on COVID-19 and the 2020 election MORE (R-Tenn.), during a floor speech, also urged Trump to rethink his emergency declaration and reshuffle more money from the Pentagon’s counter-drug accounts rather than military construction.

“Using funds already approved by Congress avoids taking money from military construction projects specifically approved by Congress for such activities as military barracks and hospitals,” he said.

Senators say they are in the dark about where the administration will shuffle money from and if projects in their home states will, at least temporarily, be put on hold. The limbo status comes as the Senate is poised to vote on a resolution this month that would block Trump’s emergency declaration. 

Trump has threatened to veto the resolution, potentially setting up a conflict between the president and his party.

“I think it's clear that people want to see the final documentation and they want to know the specific statutory basis,” said Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), who is expected to back Trump. 

To pass the resolution blocking the declaration, Democrats would need to flip four Republican senators. So far, three have said they will support the resolution and several from different factions of the caucus remain undecided and have voiced concerns about the administration’s actions.

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Asked how they would vote on the resolution of disapproval, both Sens. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonHouse chair threatens subpoenas if Pompeo doesn't provide Biden docs he gave Senate GOP Senate confirms Ratcliffe to be Trump's spy chief Schumer dubs GOP 'conspiracy caucus' amid Obama-era probes MORE (R-Wis.) and James LankfordJames Paul LankfordSenate revives surveillance brawl Republicans sharply divided over timeline for reopening economy GOP senator warns Trump against sidelining watchdogs MORE (R-Okla.) demurred, noting that they hadn’t yet seen a detailed list indicating from where the White House plans to divert funds.

Republicans raised concerns about tapping military construction accounts, as well as the administration’s broader legal strategy, during a closed-door lunch with Vice President Pence and Justice Department officials this week.

“That was the sentiment generally expressed, that we want to see what it's coming out of,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynHillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting Lawmakers ask for briefings on Chinese targeting of coronavirus research Tensions flare over GOP's Obama probes MORE (R-Texas), asked if Republicans need to see details on the military construction funding before the Senate votes.

But the administration is trying to sooth questions from lawmakers by noting the funds could be "backfilled" during the upcoming appropriations cycle, if Congress agrees.

Several Republican senators emerged from the closed-door lunch saying the administration was pledging to ask to replenish the military construction accounts as part of the fiscal 2020 funding bills, which need to be passed by Oct. 1.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyTop Republican says Trump greenlit budget fix for VA health care GOP senators not tested for coronavirus before lunch with Trump McConnell, GOP senators support exempting VA health funds from budget caps MORE (R-Ala.) said he stood up during the lunch and told his colleagues that one of his “highest priorities” would be to replace any funding taken from military construction projects.

Robert McMahon, an assistant secretary of Defense, separately told House lawmakers that no military construction projects that had been authorized would be canceled because of the emergency declaration.

“While some may be deferred, the budget request will include a request for funds to replenish these accounts,” he said during a House Appropriations Committee meeting.

He added that to protect military readiness, the Pentagon will look to delay projects that “pose no or minimal operational readiness risks if deferred,” as well as those scheduled to be 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.”

Pentagon officials have not yet told lawmakers what projects they expect to be impacted. McMahon added that they were still waiting to hear from the Department of Homeland Security on how it would spend the defense dollars. The Defense Department is in the process of identifying what military construction funds could be moved and what projects would be delayed.

The White House announced that along with an emergency declaration, Trump would reshuffle $2.5 billion from the Pentagon’s drug-interdiction programs. But in a potential hurdle, defense officials say there is currently less than $80 million that could be used for the wall from that funding pot. 

Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallDHS watchdog to investigate COVID-19 cases in ICE detention facilities Hispanic Caucus makes major ad buy for New Mexico Democratic candidate for House Senate votes to reauthorize intel programs with added legal protections MORE (D-N.M.) argued that the gap in funding means if the president wanted to reach the $8 billion for the U.S.-Mexico border wall, that could result in taking more from military construction.

“We should be prepared for a raid on other accounts or even taking even more from military construction funding. These are military construction funds that Congress already has appropriated for specific projects necessary to support the national security priorities of the United States,” he said.

Udall added that that national emergency could be put funding at risk even in red states, where senators are likely to oppose attempts to block Trump’s declaration. He noted that $210 million in military construction projects could be at risk in Florida, $520 million in Texas, $81 million in Utah “and the list goes on an on.”

To replenish the money as part of the 2020 fiscal year funding bills, the administration would need Democrats to agree to include extra money that offsets Trump’s emergency declaration.

Shelby predicted that they would ultimately go along with the plan, even if they opposed the emergency declaration.

“I hope they would be because it affects the national security,” he said. “And it might affect their districts.”

Ellen Mitchell contributed.