Democrats grill Army, Air Force nominees on military funding for border wall

Democrats grill Army, Air Force nominees on military funding for border wall
© Greg Nash

Democrats on Thursday grilled President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE’s nominees to lead the Army and the Air Force on his recent move to take $3.6 billion from military construction projects and use it for his proposed border wall.

Army Secretary nominee Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyTwo-star general at Fort Hood cleared after internal investigation Vice News promotes Micheal Learmonth to editor-in-chief Trump appointee endorses Christine Wormuth as Army secretary MORE and Air Force Secretary nominee Barbara Barrett were facing the Senate Armed Services Committee for their confirmation hearing for those jobs.

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Sen. Angus KingAngus KingSenate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act GOP tries to take filibuster pressure off Manchin, Sinema Hillicon Valley — Presented by American Edge Project — TSA to issue cybersecurity directives to secure rail, aviation sectors MORE (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, pressed McCarthy, who currently serves as under secretary of the Army, on whether the Pentagon’s general counsel or counsel for the individual military branches has prepared a legal opinion on the use of military construction funds for the border wall.

McCarthy said that has happened and committed to providing the document to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“I believe you’ve been given an illegal order. I think what’s being done here is a gross violation of the Constitution,” King replied. “Maybe the president misstated — he meant to say that New Mexico is going to pay for the wall, not Mexico. Because that’s what’s happening here. And it’s not right, and it’s not in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.”

Despite questions about the wall, both McCarthy and Barrett are expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate.

The Pentagon announced last week it was taking $3.6 billion from 127 military construction projects to build 175 miles of wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, in line with Trump’s emergency declaration at the beginning of the year.

Dipping into military construction funding followed the Pentagon’s move earlier this year to transfer without congressional approval $2.5 billion from various accounts into its counter-drug fund to be used for the wall. Reprogramming money without congressional approval broke decades of tradition and infuriated Democrats.

The same issue also led Democrats to vote against the fiscal 2020 defense spending bill Thursday.

Senate Democrats are planning to force a vote "within the next month” to nix the emergency declaration, Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden's Supreme Court commission ends not with a bang but a whimper Hispanic organizations call for Latino climate justice in reconciliation Senate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act MORE (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday. But the last attempt to pass such a resolution was unable to override Trump’s veto.

At the Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichGOP lawmakers introduce measure in support of Columbus Day Overnight Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Schneider Electric — Deadly Ida floodwaters grip southeast US David Sirota: Seven Democrats who voted against fracking ban trying to secure future elections MORE (D-N.M.) pressed McCarthy and Barrett on two projects in his home state losing money.

Heinrich grilled Barrett on an MQ-9 Reaper drone training facility at Holloman Air Force Base losing about $85 million for a new building.

“Are you aware of the fact that current trainees are resorting to using duct tape to patch holes in the walls and ceilings of their training facility?” Heinrich asked. “Did you know that because of these conditions these operators are actually the only combat aircrews in the entire Air Force that are forced to train in an unclassified, unsecure environment?”

Barrett replied that despite funding being “deferred,” it is her understanding “the priority remains very high” for the project.

“I've been on the outside so it's not something that I was a participant in, but I do believe that the priorities haven't changed and that that would be something that would be looked to for funding and appropriate action,” she said. “And I would be attentive to that as secretary, if confirmed.”

Heinrich also pressed McCarthy on plans to use $40 million originally intended for construction of a new information systems facility at White Sands Missile Range.

The contract was supposed to be awarded in fiscal 2020. McCarthy told Heinrich the Army is now hoping to award it in fiscal 2021 and hopes to “recover schedule and work with the contractors if possible.”

Heinrich told both McCarthy and Barrett he was “more than disappointed” by the administration’s move.

“Mexico is not paying for the wall,” Heinrich said. “And instead, we have real cuts that have a very real price to be paid in our military's readiness, even if it only costs us a single year at best, and real impacts on the backs of our men and women in uniform and their families.”