Senators Demand Answers on Construction Projects Bumped to Fund Border Wall

In this Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, photo, a new barrier is built along the Texas-Mexico border near downtown El Paso. Such barriers have been a part of El Paso for decades and are currently being expanded, even as the fight over President Donald Trump's desire to wall off the entire U.S.-Mexico border. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
In this Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, photo, a new barrier is built along the Texas-Mexico border near downtown El Paso. Such barriers have been a part of El Paso for decades and are currently being expanded, even as the fight over President Donald Trump's desire to wall off the entire U.S.-Mexico border. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The Defense Department's $21 billion military construction budget request, which includes $9.2 billion in emergency funds to cover the cost of a border fence as well as $2 billion in hurricane recovery money, continues to vex senators who must decide the size of the Pentagon's budget next fiscal year.

Members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee pressed defense officials Tuesday about their plans for the money, asking what programs, if any, will be delayed or abandoned with a potential funding shift that could occur if the department decides to authorize it.

When President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on immigration at the southern border, the announcement opened up new options for funding the wall through reprogramming. The current proposal, in the Pentagon's fiscal 2020 budget request, includes $7.2 billion in military construction funding, including $3.6 billion to "backfill" programs affected by the shift and an additional $3.6 to fund future projects affected by wall construction.

Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert McMahon said the exact projects that will be defunded or delayed in order to build the wall have not been chosen because acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has not decided whether to reprogram the money.

McMahon said Shanahan is reviewing a list of proposed construction projects provided to the Pentagon by the Homeland Security Department and, based on the scope of those projects, is "identifying military construction projects that could be used as funding sources."

"It's a level of detail we are not down to yet, because today there is no requirement," McMahon said.

Democrats have previously demanded information on the affected projects, with some saying they feel they are being stonewalled by the department.

"This puts us in an awkward position. It is difficult to fund additional requirements and to do what we normally do, which is to listen to you, to trust you and lay down the money for those needs," said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, the subcommittee's ranking member.

Lawmakers on the House side have proposed stripping the Pentagon of its ability to reprogram funds thwart the shifting of funds to pay for 57 miles of border fence.

The Pentagon's fiscal 2020 budget request for military construction also includes $9.9 billion for base military construction requirements; $1.3 billion for family housing; funds for single service member apartments and barracks; and $600 million for overseas contingency operations construction projects.

Service officials on Tuesday largely stayed out of the wall funding debate and instead focused on their immediate construction needs, which include $1.8 billion for the Army for "Strategic Power Projection," meant to be used to build facilities to support training and operations; $2.3 billion to the Navy for infrastructure restoration and modernization; and $3.4 billion for the Marine Corps for hurricane recovery.

Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Vincent Coglianese, commander of Marine Corps Installations Command, said the entire service has been affected by the storms that ravaged North Carolina and Georgia last year, as funds have been diverted to support recovery efforts.

"It was a gut punch," Coglianese said. Marines and sailors are still occupying homes that need repairs. More than 3,300 sailors and Marines are displaced ... services are disrupted."

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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