Republicans grumble over Trump shifting military funds to wall

GOP lawmakers are grumbling over President TrumpDonald John TrumpSecret Service members who helped organize Pence Arizona trip test positive for COVID-19: report Trump administration planning pandemic office at the State Department: report Iran releases photo of damaged nuclear fuel production site: report MORE’s redirection of funds from military construction projects in their states and districts to his promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Their uneasiness stems from this week’s announcement by Secretary of Defense Mark EsperMark EsperDuckworth to block military confirmations until Esper proves Vindman will be promoted House panel votes to limit Trump's Germany withdrawal House panel votes to ban Confederate flag at Pentagon property MORE that $3.6 billion will be stripped from 127 projects at U.S. bases, including some in states where GOP senators are up for reelection.

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Congressional Republicans now face the fraught task of assuring their constituents that the projects won’t be canceled while also working with the Defense Department and Democrats to craft legislation that will replenish or “backfill” the funding — all while not coming across as publicly rebuking President Trump.

Many GOP lawmakers are upset that Trump issued an emergency declaration in February to carry out the cash shift. 

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday Senate passes extension of application deadline for PPP small-business loans MORE (R-Maine), who is up for reelection, said she doesn’t believe the president has the constitutional authority to divert the money.

“Each of these projects was recommended by the administration, passed by both the Senate and the House, signed into law by the president, and while there is some discretion that he has to move money around, I think that his executive order exceeds his discretion,” she said during an event Wednesday in Maine.

Congress voted this year to block Trump’s emergency declaration, but lawmakers fell short of the votes needed to override the president’s subsequent veto. 

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Trump’s emergency declaration prompted Esper to inform congressional leaders this week that in order to build 175 miles of the wall on the southern border, some $1.1 billion would need to be cut from projects across 23 states, according to a letter to congressional leaders.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRepublicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police Senators aim to limit Trump's ability to remove troops from Germany MORE (R-Utah), whose state is set to lose a combined $54 million for two military projects, said he was “disappointed” by the decision, while noting that “funding the border wall is an important priority.” 

“The Executive Branch should use the appropriate channels in Congress, rather than divert already appropriated funding away from military construction projects and therefore undermining military readiness," he said in a statement Wednesday.

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenate panel votes 21-1 to back Justice IG measure over Graham objections Senators offer bill to expand charitable giving tax break Overnight Energy: Senate passes major lands conservation bill | Mnuchin ordered to give Native American tribes full stimulus funding | Key Republican jeopardizes Trump consumer safety nominee MORE (R-Utah) added to that sentiment by saying, "Congress has been ceding far too much powers to the executive branch for decades and it is far past time for Congress to restore the proper balance of power between the three branches." 

He also called for Congress to “correct the imbalances caused by the National Emergencies Act.”

But other Republicans have been muted in their criticism, even if their states are getting hit.

“We continue to face a very real crisis at the southern border,” House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House Armed Services votes to make Pentagon rename Confederate-named bases in a year House panel votes to limit Trump's Germany withdrawal MORE (R-Texas) said in a statement Wednesday. “I regret that the president has been forced to divert funding for our troops to address the crisis.”

Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names Political establishment takes a hit as chaos reigns supreme MORE (R-Ariz.), who faces a tough reelection campaign, downplayed the effect on her home state, saying a project at Ft. Huachuca had already been delayed because of an "ongoing environmental cleanup that is taking longer than expected." 

Her office initially said only $30,000 would be deferred from Arizona, but later said it was $30 million.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnell'Comrade' Trump gets 'endorsement' from Putin in new mock ad by Lincoln Project ACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants Carville repeats prediction that Trump will drop out of race MORE (R), whose home state of Kentucky will be hit by the funding shuffle to the tune of nearly $63 million, recently talked to Esper regarding the issue “and is committed to protecting funding for the Ft. Campbell Middle School project,” a spokesman for McConnell told The Hill.

“We would not be in this situation if Democrats were serious about protecting our homeland and worked with us to provide the funding needed to secure our borders during our appropriations process,” the spokesman said.

Democrats, meanwhile, have blamed the GOP for failing to stand up to Trump on the emergency declaration. 

Democrat MJ Hegar, who is seeking to unseat Sen. John Cornyn (R) in 2020, said in a statement Thursday that the Texas senator “should be ashamed that he enabled his political allies to steal $38.5 million from projects to improve the conditions at Fort Bliss and Joint Base San Antonio for our men and women in uniform.”

Hegar also said that Cornyn earlier this year “stood behind his political ally and voted in favor of the Emergency Declaration, which has enabled these national security funds to be ripped away from Texas bases.”

Ten Republican senators who are up for reelection next year voted in support of Trump’s emergency declaration but will have funding diverted from their state: Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyWhy drug costs for older Americans should be capped in pandemic's wake Ready Responders CEO Justin Dangel stresses importance of Medicaid population; Fauci says he won't attend Trump rally this weekend Senate advances public lands bill in late-night vote MORE (La.), Cornyn, Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks Hickenlooper beats back progressive challenge in Colorado primary MORE (Colo.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHillicon Valley: Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse | Trump administration awards tech group contract to build 'virtual' wall | Advocacy groups urge Congress to ban facial recognition technologies Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse The Hill's Campaign Report: The political heavyweights in Tuesday's primary fights MORE (S.C.), Cindy Hyde-Smith (Miss.), James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeRepublicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names Senate rejects Paul proposal on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan Liberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP MORE (Okla.), McConnell, McSally, Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanUS security starts in the Arctic Senate confirms nation's first African American service chief GOP senators urge Trump not to restrict guest worker visas MORE (Alaska) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants Poll: Biden, Trump locked in neck-and-neck battle for North Carolina GOP senator: Russia should be labeled state sponsor of terrorism if intelligence is accurate MORE (N.C.).

McSally, Gardner and Tillis are among those viewed as vulnerable heading into their reelection campaigns.

“It’s unfortunate Democrats can’t defend the border and defend the country at the same time. If they could, we would have a border that was secure and no need for other funding to secure the border," Gardner said in a statement Thursday. "Six months ago, they said there was no crisis at the border. Now they admit there is a crisis but won’t pay to help fix it.” 

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) says senators like Tillis, McSally, Gardner, Cornyn, Graham and McConnell are “directly responsible for their own states losing millions of dollars in funding for critical military construction projects.”

“Because of their self-serving politics and their spineless inability to stand up to the White House, [GOP senators] failed a basic test of leadership and now military installations in their states are paying the price,” DSCC spokesman Stewart Boss said in a statement.

Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthDuckworth to block military confirmations until Esper proves Vindman will be promoted Liberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP Trump faces bipartisan calls for answers on Russian-offered bounties MORE (D-Ill.), an Army veteran, said Trump’s “inappropriate move” makes it clear that he “cares more about appearing to keep his ridiculous campaign promises than he does about keeping the nation’s promises to our troops.”

“Trump’s reckless politicization of vital military funds will waste taxpayer dollars and ultimately harm our military’s readiness, our troops’ quality of life and our national security,” Duckworth said in a statement Wednesday.

Democrats are likely to prolong the political headache for Republicans leading up to Election Day 2020. Under the National Emergencies Act, Democrats can force votes on resolutions of disapproval every sixth months, with the next vote as soon as mid-September.  

The House and Senate will soon face the challenge of coming together to figure out a solution in the annual defense policy bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act. 

The GOP-controlled Senate already agreed to fund the deferred military projects in its bill, but the Democratic-led House said it won’t agree to do the same.

“I think it’s going to be difficult with members of the House to try to get them to backfill the money. This is a showdown that we’ve seen coming for a long time,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

If House Democrats refuse to authorize the backfilled money, affected military construction projects might be terminated. 

But giving the administration the money it has requested, Harrison said, is “basically giving the president the green light to do this again.” 

“If they want to avoid contradicting the president publicly, but they also want to protect these projects and their constituents that depend on then, then I think the most logical course of action is to just keep working on the side to make sure the money gets restored,” Harrison said. 

“And then they can try to go to their constitutes and say, ‘Hey, it’s only temporary. We’re going to get the money put back. Don’t worry.’”