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Trump's emergency declaration looms over Pentagon funding fight

Trump's emergency declaration looms over Pentagon funding fight
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Congress is barreling toward a fight over President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts 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 SmithClimate swarming — Biden's 'Plan B' for the planet Despite veto threat, Congress presses ahead on defense bill Overnight Defense: Defense bill moving forward despite Trump veto threat over tech fight | Government funding bill hits snag | Top general talks Afghanistan, Pentagon budget 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 DurbinDick DurbinCongress faces late-year logjam Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot 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 SchultzHouse Democrats pick DeLauro to lead Appropriations panel DeLauro wins Steering Committee vote for Appropriations chair On The Money: Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | JPMorgan: Economy will shrink in first quarter due to COVID-19 spike 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 ShanahanProgressive House Democrats urge Biden against Defense chief with contractor ties Trump fires Defense chief Mark Esper House Armed Services chairman expresses confidence in Esper amid aircraft carrier coronavirus crisis 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 LoweyOvernight Defense: Lawmakers release compromise defense bill in defiance of Trump veto threat | Senate voting next week on blocking UAE arms sale | Report faults lack of training, 'chronic fatigue' in military plane crashes Rep. David Scott wins House Agriculture Committee gavel House Democrats pick DeLauro to lead Appropriations panel MORE (N.Y.), John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiReport on military aviation crashes faults lack of training, 'chronic fatigue' Wuhan is the final straw: The world needs to divest from China GOP seizes on 'defund the police' to galvanize base 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 ShelbyHouse Democrats pick DeLauro to lead Appropriations panel The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates Congress faces late-year logjam 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 RoundsHillicon Valley: Government used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 | Defense bill leaves out Section 230 repeal, includes White House cyber czar position | Officials warn hackers are targeting vaccine supply chain Defense policy bill would create new cyber czar position Trump doubles down on Section 230 repeal after GOP pushback 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.