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Trump’s Raid on Pentagon Funds Could Spark Another Shutdown Showdown

Michael Rainey

The Pentagon’s announcement that it will shift $3.6 billion from military construction projects to fund the repair and construction of barriers on the border with Mexico is meeting bipartisan resistance in Washington, and the controversy could complicate efforts to pass appropriations bills – and keep the government open – this fall.

In the wake of the announcement, Democrats vowed to oppose the administration’s move and accused President Trump of playing politics with national security. "I'm deeply concerned about President Trump's plan to pull funding from critical national security projects … so he can build his border wall,” said Democratic Senator Tim Kaine. “The well-being of American troops is the core responsibility of every commander in the military, yet the Commander-in-Chief is shirking that duty so he can advance his own political agenda.”

Criticizing Trump’s use of a national emergency declaration to enable the transfer of Pentagon funds to the border, Republican Senator Mike Lee said, "Congress has been ceding far too much powers to the executive branch for decades and it is far past time for Congress to restore the proper balance of power between the three branches.”

More details on the deferred projects: The Pentagon released a list late Wednesday of 127 projects that are being delayed due to the diversion of funds to the border (see the full list at PBS). Domestically, the diversion of funds affects 43 projects in 23 states, as well as 21 projects in three U.S. territories, together worth roughly $1.8 billion. The rest of the money is being drawn from 64 projects in 19 countries around the world (plus one “classified” location and one that is “unspecified.”)

Here are some highlights from the list:

  • Puerto Rico is the biggest single loser, with projects worth about $400 million being deferred, says James Hohmann of The Washington Post. Most of the construction projects are related to recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria.
  • The European Deterrence Initiative, created to counter Russia’s aggression in Crimea, will lose $770 million designated for projects in Estonia, Poland, Italy, Slovakia and Hungary.
  • Projects in Utah will lose $54 million – raising the question of political motivates for some of the cuts. “This is striking because both of the state’s conservative senators, Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, voted against Trump’s border emergency in March and supported the resolution of disapproval,” Hohmann writes. “Is it retaliation?” Politico notes that of “the $1.08 billion in cuts coming from military facilities inside 23 U.S. states, 55 percent came from states Hillary Clinton won, versus 45 percent from states won by Trump.”
  • The U.S. Military Academy at West Point – located in the home state of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a frequent critic of the president – will lose $160 million, including $95 million designated for an engineering center.
  • The list includes “child care centers, roads, at least one cybersecurity facility,” says Roll Call’s John M. Donnelly. Reuters’ Bryan Pietsch cites “maintenance shops, equipment storage buildings and hazardous material warehouses” as well.

Budget conflict ahead? Democratic lawmakers face a tricky situation as they plan their response to Trump’s move, The Hill’s Niv Elis and Cristina Marcos say. While they have vowed not to backfill the funding for the projects that are losing money, they don’t want to be blamed by Trump for failing to fund important military construction projects.

The issue could get caught up in the budgetary battles that are set to resume next week when lawmakers return to Washington from summer recess. Congress needs to reauthorize the annual National Defense Authorization Act before the end of the year, but the current versions take starkly different approaches when it comes to the border. The Senate version of the bill backfills all of the $3.6 billion in Pentagon construction funds that are being diverted, while the House version specifically denies the administration the right to use Pentagon funds to build a border wall.

More immediately, lawmakers are expected to take up a short-term funding bill in the next few weeks, before the fiscal year ends on September 30. “That deadline could also become a flashpoint,” Elis and Marcos say, with another government shutdown looming as a possibility if the disagreement over border wall funding cannot be resolved. “A showdown over the wall in December prevented a similar stopgap measure from going through, resulting in a record 35-day partial government shutdown,” they note.

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