Senate deal would block Pentagon from using coronavirus funds on border wall

The massive stimulus package awaiting a vote in the Senate would prohibit the Pentagon from shifting $10.5 billion in coronavirus funding to a counter-drug account it has been using to fund President Trump’s southern border wall.

According to bill text released by the Senate Appropriations Committee, the bill would allow the Pentagon to transfer the coronavirus funds to other accounts “except for ‘Drug Interdiction and Counter-Drug Activities, Defense.’”

A Democratic summary of the bill described the language as intended to “prevent funds in this title from being diverted to build a wall on the southern border.”

Earlier this year, the Pentagon transferred $3.8 billion from various weapons programs to the counter-drug fund to use to build the border wall.

That’s on top of $2.5 billion from counter-drug funds and $3.6 billion in military construction the Pentagon tapped last year to fund the wall.

The transfers infuriated Democrats — and this year, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee — who argued the Trump administration was usurping Congress’ power of the purse.

Democrats tried to insert limits on funding transfers and using Pentagon funding on the wall in last year’s defense policy and spending bills, but were unsuccessful amid Republican opposition.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Pentagon is being increasingly called upon to supplement civilian medical capacity and supplies.

A Navy hospital ship based in San Diego is en route to Los Angeles, and another ship based in Virginia is expected to head to New York City in the coming weeks. The Army is also preparing to deploy field hospitals to Seattle and New York.

Thousands of National Guardsmen around the country are also helping respond to the pandemic, with the federal government so far paying for them in California, New York and Washington.

The stimulus deal agreed to early Wednesday by the White House and Senate leaders would provide the Pentagon a total of $10.5 billion. That includes $1.5 billion for the National Guard and $713.6 million for operations including the hospital ship deployments.

The bill would also provide $1 billion for the Defense Production Act, a wartime authority lawmakers have been urging Trump to use to ramp up production of coronavirus tests, ventilators, masks and other critical supplies.

The number of people connected to the Pentagon diagnosed with COVID-19 also continues to rise each day. As of Wednesday, 227 service members, 81 civilians, 67 dependents and 40 contractors have tested positive for the virus.

The stimulus package would provide $3.8 billion for defense health programs, including $3.4 billion to buy more equipment to treat patients and physical protective equipment for medical personnel and disease response, to expand the capacity of military treatment facilities and to buy expeditionary hospital packages.

The other $415 million for defense health programs would go toward research and development into vaccines and antivirals to use against the coronavirus.

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