Congress is barreling toward a fight over President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE’s decision to redirect billions in Pentagon funding to construct his proposed border wall.
The looming showdown is throwing an early wrench into the fiscal year 2020 budget talks, as lawmakers face a Sept. 30 deadline to avoid a second government shutdown in the 116th Congress.
The brewing battle stems from Trump’s plan to take $2.5 billion out of a Defense Department counter-drug fund to beef up the $1.375 billion he got from lawmakers as part of last month’s government spending bill. He initially sought $5.7 billion.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithStumbling plutonium pit project reveals DOE's uphill climb of nuclear modernization Congress should control its appetite for legacy programs when increasing defense budget House panel advances 8B defense bill MORE (D-Wash.) recently fired a warning shot, saying Democrats would try to strip the Defense Department of its ability to reprogram money if the Pentagon doesn’t get congressional buy-in.
“We will zero out their reprogramming authority for fiscal year 2020,” Smith told Bloomberg News.
Referring to House Democrats on both the Armed Services and Appropriations panels, he added: “That is our position.”
Typically the Pentagon gets approval from top appropriators and Armed Services Committee members before it reprograms money authorized by Congress for something other than its original intent.
But Democrats are worried the Defense Department might try to leapfrog Congress by arguing sign-off from lawmakers was based on precedent, not a statutory requirement. Though lawmakers routinely grant reprogramming requests, the administration would likely hit a dead end with a funding shuffle related to getting Trump more money for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinDemocrats up ante in risky debt ceiling fight Democrats reject hardball tactics against Senate parliamentarian Biden to raise refugee cap to 125,000 in October MORE (D-Ill.), a member of Democratic leadership and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee, added that he understood Smith’s frustration.
“I can understand the feeling because if the president can raid funds that he has asked us to appropriate for national defense with impunity...he’s taking away the flexibility within the military to meet their very real needs,” Durbin said.
He added that he had been meeting with Defense Department officials and “they don’t have a clue what this president’s going to do … it is all just tweets and press releases.”
The reprograming fight comes as lawmakers are already locking horns over the administration’s plan to take $3.6 billion in funding from military construction to build the border wall with a promise to lawmakers that it will request funds to make up any diverted money as part of its 2020 budget request.
Republicans predict Democrats will go along with the plan because of the home-state impact, but Democrats have pushed back on the strategy, arguing the funding shouldn’t be taken away from military construction projects in the first place.
“By coming back to Congress in FY20 and asking for those projects to be replaced, essentially what you're doing is circumventing Congress to get funding for the wall, which you could not get during the conference process, and instead coming back and trying to get us to replace that funding during the fiscal the FY20 appropriations cycle,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman SchultzDeborah (Debbie) Wasserman SchultzOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Democrats advance tax plan through hurdles Florida Democrat says vaccines, masks are key to small-business recovery DNC members grow frustrated over increasing White House influence MORE (D-Fla.) said during a recent Armed Services Committee hearing.
The headaches awaiting Trump and Congress will only grow more intense as lawmakers prepare to start work in earnest on the fiscal year 2020 government funding bills. Trump is expected to kickstart the process when he starts introducing his budget on Monday.
“It's not a complicated issue. We just zero out where we are since they've decided they're not going to play by the rules. That's at least our starting point,” Smith said when asked how he would handle the reprogramming fight.
Top Democrats on the House Armed Services and Appropriations committees, including Smith, sent a letter to acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanSenators introducing bill to penalize Pentagon for failed audits Overnight Defense: National Guard boosts DC presence ahead of inauguration | Lawmakers demand probes into troops' role in Capitol riot | Financial disclosures released for Biden Pentagon nominee Biden Pentagon pick could make up to .7M from leaving Raytheon MORE on Thursday requesting details on the Pentagon's plan to reshuffle money to construct the border wall.
"We ask for your commitment to inform the congressional defense committees when a decision is made to support an activity and at least sixty (60) days prior to transferring funds into, or allocating, obligating, or expending any funds originating from the counterdrug transfer account for the construction of a border wall or barrier," the lawmakers wrote.
The group — which includes Smith, Wasserman Schultz and Reps. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyLobbying world Progressives fight for leverage amid ever-slimming majority Biden needs to tear down bureaucratic walls and refocus Middle East programs MORE (N.Y.), John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiThreats against members of Congress on track to double those in 2020 Lawmakers urge Biden to make 'bold decisions' in nuclear review Equilibrium/ Sustainability — The gentler side of Shark Week MORE (Calif.) and Peter ViscloskyPeter John ViscloskyBottom line Key races to watch in Tuesday's primaries Trump's emergency declaration looms over Pentagon funding fight MORE (Ind.) — added that they were "frustrated" by "disregard for decades of precedent with regard to congressional oversight of the transfer of authorized and appropriated funds."
As committee chairman, Smith is deeply involved in the months-long authorization and appropriations process for the Pentagon. But his threat to nix the department’s reprogramming ability would likely be dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate and spark backlash from Trump, who has bristled at legislative attempts to rein in his executive authority.
Asked what a realistic outcome would be for attempts to limit the Pentagon’s reprogramming abilities, Durbin hedged.
“I can certainly understand their frustration if the president is not going to play it straight, if he’s going to ask us to appropriate all these funds and then turn around and use them for whatever his political project is,” Durbin said.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyMcConnell privately urged GOP senators to oppose debt ceiling hike Crypto debate set to return in force Press: Why is Mo Brooks still in the House? MORE (R-Ala.) was more direct, warning that a zeroing out of reprogramming abilities was “not going to happen.”
“You think the Senate would want to do that?” said Shelby, who also oversees the panel’s defense subcommittee. “I wouldn’t think so. ...They’ve had reprogramming authority for a long time.”
Though the House will pass its own National Defense Authorization Act and funding bills, they will need to reconcile with competing legislation from the Senate before the measures can be sent to Trump’s desk. Lawmakers could try to include Pentagon-restrictive language in either of those bills.
Sen. Mike RoundsMike RoundsThe 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill Senate passes T bipartisan infrastructure bill in major victory for Biden Senate votes to end debate on T infrastructure bill MORE (R-S.D.) warned that he thought Democrats would try to insert language into appropriations bills to limit Trump's ability to redirect money for the border wall, which would force the president to veto a government funding bill or accept new limitations on his powers.
"I think the bigger challenge is going to come when the House probably tries to restrict the use of those different categories of funds in the future," Rounds said during an interview with CNN. "That's when the real fireworks are going to start."
Shelby noted that the Defense Department already notifies lawmakers of its reprogramming plans, hinting that lawmakers “like to be involved.”
“I think things work more smoothly when we’re all involved,” he said. “I think we’ll get along better if we’re all working together.”
But Smith, when asked if the Pentagon has broken the reprogramming process, said, “It's severely bent it for the moment, let's put it that way.”
Rebecca Kheel contributed.