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Trump's raid on Pentagon funds draws bipartisan Hill fire

POLITICO logo POLITICO 2/15/2019 By Connor O’Brien
a man wearing a suit and tie: House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, shown here speaking in 2018, vowed stiff oversight to highlight specific military projects Trump "has chosen to value less" than a border wall. © Karen Ducey/Getty Images House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, shown here speaking in 2018, vowed stiff oversight to highlight specific military projects Trump "has chosen to value less" than a border wall.

President Donald Trump’s decision to tap into billions of dollars in defense funding to help build his signature border wall drew fierce criticism Friday from military-minded lawmakers in both parties, who warned the move would damage military readiness.

Trump’s declaration of a national emergency, including tapping into $3.6 billion in military construction funding to finance more barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border, set off another firestorm on Capitol Hill as he declared that the military projects his administration intended to raid “didn’t sound too important to me.”

“Some of the generals think that this is more important. I was speaking to a couple of them. They think this is more important than what they were going to use it for,” said Trump, who didn’t name any of those generals.

The move is likely to be subjected to myriad legal challenges and votes to block it in Congress. For one, House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) vowed stiff oversight to highlight specific military projects Trump "has chosen to value less" than a border wall.

"It is utterly disrespectful of U.S. national security and the needs of our men and women in uniform, and it further undermines his credibility in requesting the upcoming defense budget,” Smith said in a statement.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls military construction funding, contended Trump’s declaration would “jeopardize the safety and security of our troops” and speculated funding for key military mission-related facilities could be on the chopping block.

"We have defense intelligence centers, we have military readiness training centers, we have F-35 maintenance facilities and hangers that he would take funding from in order to build his wall," Wasserman Schultz said in an interview with CNN.

"I find it hard to believe that the generals told him it was more important to build an unnecessary border wall," she said.

In all, the White House is directing $8 billion toward building or repairing up to 234 miles of border barriers. On top of the $1.37 billion for barriers allocated in spending legislation passed Thursday, Trump is aiming to divert $3.6 billion in military construction funds and $2.5 billion from a Pentagon drug interdiction program as well as $600 million from a Treasury Department forfeiture fund.

For weeks, Trump has dangled using emergency authorities that would permit him to tap into unobligated military construction funds. His demand for $5.7 billion for border walls was the central dispute in a 35-day partial government shutdown that ended late last month.

The Pentagon’s military construction accounts are a relatively small pot of funding — lawmakers allocated $10.3 billion for the current fiscal year for military construction and family housing projects. But key lawmakers have also warned that the infrastructure accounts are still recovering from years of tightened defense budgets.

Trump's emergency declaration also came just a few days after the Senate Armed Services Committee heard from military families about poor and dangerous conditions in privatized military family housing across the country.

Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, called Trump's move a “dangerous precedent” and warned “securing our border should not be done at the expense of previously funded military construction projects.”

Turner and four other House Republicans — Richard Hudson of North Carolina, Tom Cole of Oklahoma, Chris Collins of New York and Doug Lamborn of Colorado — warned Trump against siphoning off military construction funds in a letter last week, citing “aging infrastructure challenges which undermine the readiness and lethality” of the military.

“Republican members of the Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee are probably going to set themselves on fire over this,” former Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who chaired the House Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee, said on CNN. “This is just a slap in the face to Congress and their power of the purse.”

Indeed, after winning massive increases to the defense budget over the past two years, senior defense hawks are worried siphoning off military construction funds would damage readiness just as it’s being rebuilt.

Ahead of Trump’s announcement, the top House Armed Services Republican, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, urged the president not to divert defense spending.

"Doing so would have detrimental consequences for our troops as military infrastructure was one of the accounts most deprived during the Obama-era defense cuts," Thornberry said in a statement. "It would undercut one of the most significant accomplishments of the last two years — beginning to repair and rebuild our military."

In the Senate, Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), said ahead of the announcement that he supported Trump's decision to declare an emergency at the border, but hoped for "minimal, if any, impact on our military" and called for military programs, if tapped, to be reimbursed.

"As I heard in a hearing [Wednesday], military housing and all military installations are facing disrepair and poor conditions," Inhofe said. "We cannot afford to allow them to be further impacted."

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