Fight Over Border Troops, Wall Construction Obstructing Passage of Defense Budget

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Marines with the 7th Engineer Support Battalion, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force 7, walk along the California-Mexico border at the Andrade Point of Entry in Winterhaven, California. (U.S. Army/Army Spc. Ethan Valetski)
FILE -- Marines walk along the California-Mexico border at the Andrade Point of Entry in Winterhaven, California. (U.S. Army/Army Spc. Ethan Valetski)

Paying for the border wall and thousands of U.S. troops to reinforce Customs and Border Protection personnel has become a major roadblock to reaching congressional agreement on spending bills and avoiding the threat of a Nov. 21 government shutdown.

Deployed troops "see the news and they know there's a big fight on border funding in Washington" that could affect their promised 3.1% pay raise and the overall defense budget, said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who recently returned from a congressional delegation to visit troops in Afghanistan and Jordan.

"Just because we're having a disagreement on that issue does not mean that they should not be supported," said Thornberry, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

"The clock is ticking, less than a month" to Nov. 21, he said. "I want to fully fund border security and fully fund the military and not have to choose between the two."

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However, the House impeachment inquiry "is sucking all the oxygen out of the room, and we're not doing the essential work that the people and our troops expect us to do," Thornberry said.

Congress was unable to reach agreement on the National Defense Authorization Act legislation and spending bills by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year; it is now operating on a continuing resolution to keep spending at 2019 levels until Nov. 21.

Last week at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual conference in Washington, D.C., Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, said work on the border wall is progressing.

"My job is basically to stay in construction. As far as any long-term funding ramifications or implications -- I'll leave that up to the Department of Defense," he said.

Semonite noted that about $3.6 billion in funding appropriated by Congress for military construction projects, including schools, firing ranges and hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico, was taken from the DoD budget under emergency order from President Donald Trump and devoted to wall funding.

Most of the 127 military construction military projects in 23 states, 19 countries and three U.S. territories were not going to be awarded in 2019, Semonite said, adding that it is an open question as to whether the funding will be restored.

"It's not my job to guess on how that's going to happen," he said. "I think it's still [DoD's] desire to continue to try to secure that funding to build those critical projects."

At the same AUSA event with Semonite, Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, commander of Army North, said funding had been secured from the Department of Homeland Security to keep at least 5,500 troops on the border through next September, but that funding also could be affected by the budget impasse. She did not give a figure for the funding from Homeland.

Last month, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Pentagon officials said that some of the funding from the $3.6 billion diverted from military construction projects would go to building 175 miles of new or reconstructed wall along the border with Mexico.

Pentagon chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said at the time, "This funding will all go to adding significantly new capabilities to [Homeland's] ability to prevent illegal entry.

"In areas where we go from, say, a vehicle barrier to a 30-foot wall, we will have a significantly new set of capabilities that didn't exist previously," he said.

At the time of Esper's announcement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, issued a statement: "The administration's irresponsible decision to transfer funds from appropriated U.S. military construction makes America less safe and dishonors the Constitution."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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