Trump's emergency declaration looms over Pentagon funding fight

Trump's emergency declaration looms over Pentagon funding fight

Congress is barreling toward a fight over President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment 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.

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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 SmithOvernight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One House panel approves 3B defense policy bill House panel approves 3B defense policy 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.

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Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw The Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle 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 SchultzLee Zeldin responds to Ilhan Omar accusing him of 'bigotry' Congressional Women's Softball team releases roster Overnight Defense — Presented by Huntington Ingalls Industries — Trump nominates Shanahan as Pentagon chief | House panel advances bill to block military funds for border wall | Trump defends Bolton despite differences 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 ShanahanTrump admin to discuss sending additional military force to Middle East amid Iran tensions: report Trump admin to discuss sending additional military force to Middle East amid Iran tensions: report Overnight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale 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 LoweyHouse panel wraps up final 2020 spending bill as Senate lags House panel wraps up final 2020 spending bill as Senate lags On The Money: Democrats set stage for next shutdown fight | House panel wraps up final 2020 spending bill | GOP senators, White House delay meeting on spending | Trump hits Fed over high interest rates MORE (N.Y.), John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiHouse panel shoots down funding, deployment of low-yield nukes in defense bill House panel shoots down funding, deployment of low-yield nukes in defense bill Overnight Defense: Latest on House defense bill markup | Air Force One, low-yield nukes spark debate | House Dems introduce resolutions blocking Saudi arms sales | Trump to send 1,000 troops to Poland MORE (Calif.) and Peter ViscloskyPeter John ViscloskyTrump's emergency declaration looms over Pentagon funding fight Dems urge Mattis to reject using 0M for border wall House votes to prevent military base closures 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 ShelbyGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill 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 RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsHouse panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices House panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa 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.