The opening battle began Wednesday in what is likely to be a lengthy legislative war over the use of military funds for construction of the southern border wall that President Donald Trump has made a pivotal issue in the immigration debate.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, set the stage for a prolonged bout with House and Senate Republicans on the wall issue by proposing an overall $733 billion defense budget with a "blanket" ban on the use of military funds for construction.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the committee's ranking Republican, countered Wednesday with a plan to boost the defense budget back up to the $750 billion proposed by the Senate. Then he proposed taking about $3.2 billion from the extra $17 billion and directing it to wall construction.
The battle played out at the marathon markup Wednesday of the annual defense policy bill -- the National Defense Authorization Act -- as members offered a blizzard of amendments on items ranging from health care to nuclear weapons.
On his list of "items of concern" with Smith's proposals, Thornberry included wall funding and "the diversion of resources to border security and repeated deployments in support of [Department of Homeland Security] activities."
The U.S. currently has more than 5,000 troops on the border supporting DHS -- about 3,000 active-duty troops and 2,100 from the National Guard, according to the Pentagon.
If Smith's "presumptive ban on construction projects" were to pass, the result would be that funds not already obligated for border barrier construction would be held back once the NDAA is enacted, Thornberry said in a statement.
Smith, backed by most House Democrats, would ban the use of Defense Department, military construction or counter-drug funds for any purpose involving building a "wall, fence or physical barrier" along the southern border.
However, at a breakfast with defense reporters Monday, Smith said that unresolved issues on the defense budget proposal ultimately will have to be worked out in a conference committee with the Senate.
"We have to remember that the overwhelming majority of this bill is incredibly important and not that controversial," he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.