The ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee stated his opposition Tuesday to using Defense Department funds for the border wall but also said President Donald Trump has the authority to do it.
"I am opposed to using defense dollars for non-defense purposes," Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said at an informal gathering with defense reporters on a range of issues facing the new Congress.
Building the wall "is not a responsibility of the Department of Defense," he said. "I am opposed to using defense dollars for anything" but military purposes.
Democrats have leveled harsh criticism at Trump for floating the idea of declaring a national emergency that would allow him to dip into the Pentagon's budget.
Stopping short of a similar rebuke, Thornberry nonetheless noted that the president already is siphoning off DoD resources by deploying active-duty troops to the border.
In early December, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis estimated the cost of the deployment to that point at $72 million.
By declaring a national emergency, Trump could draw funding for the wall from what Thornberry called the "unobligated balances" in the Defense Department's military construction budget.
Thornberry turned over chairmanship of the committee last week to Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington. Smith also has said Trump likely would succeed in drawing money from the military budget for a wall by declaring a national emergency but added that the move would immediately face court challenges.
Thornberry said he did not know how much of the military construction budget would come under the heading of "unobligated balances" but made clear that he thought using military money to fund the wall -- and the Army Corps of Engineers to construct it -- is a bad idea.
"The military is not short of challenges" without being tasked to fund and build a wall, he said. "They're not out there looking for new missions."
Thornberry spoke hours before Trump was to address the nation on the partial government shutdown, now in its 17th day, caused by the impasse over wall funding. Trump also said he will go to the border Thursday to visit with troops deployed there.
Trump is seeking $5.6 billion for the wall, but House and Senate Democrats have offered $1.6 billion for border security enhancements that would not include wall funding.
Vice President Mike Pence was to brief House and Senate leaders Tuesday afternoon on what Trump will propose in the address to the nation.
In a tweet Monday, Trump indicated he has the authority to declare a national emergency to get military funding for the wall, but said he preferred to compromise with Congress.
The president said there was "no doubt" he could declare a national emergency "but let's get our deal done in Congress."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com