Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that the Pentagon will back the Trump administration's plan to take another $7.2 billion from the military's budget to pay for the border wall.
"The first priority of the [Defense Department] is the protection of the homeland," Esper said. "The southwestern border is a security issue."
He said the DoD is committed to backing up the Department of Homeland Security in protecting the border, adding that the diversion of funds for that mission is in the nation's interests.
"If that's what it takes" to fulfill the mission, the Pentagon is prepared to support the diversion of military funding for the wall, Esper said at a joint Pentagon press briefing with Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono.
On Capitol Hill, House Democrats began lining up Tuesday to oppose the plan.
In a joint statement, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-New York, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and committee members Pete Visclosky, D-Indiana, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, denounced the plan, first reported by The Washington Post, which would redirect $3.7 billion from military construction and $3.5 billion in counter-narcotics programs overseen by the military. The money would pay for 885 miles of new border wall, according to the Post.
The three Democrats charged that President Donald Trump is "once again forcing service members and their families to pay for his wall by canceling even more vital military construction projects."
The latest debate on funding the wall comes amid continuing court battles over land rights and authorizations for construction stemming from the administration's declaration of a national emergency at the border last year to take $3.6 billion in money appropriated by Congress for military construction.
The $3.6 billion in 2019 came from 127 military construction projects in 23 states, 19 countries and three U.S. territories and included funding for schools, firing ranges and hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico, according to the DoD.
It is still unclear whether Congress will move to restore funding for the projects that were suspended last year in the next National Defense Authorization Act, scheduled for Oct. 1.
In a joint statement, the three Democrats renewed arguments they used against the diversion of military funds last year, calling the border wall "a wasteful political stunt, not a meaningful way to secure our nation."
"Moreover, at a time when the opioid epidemic continues to rage across the country, President Trump is stealing funding that was intended for meaningful counterdrug priorities to pay for his wall," they said.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, overseeing all government spending, also expressed doubts about diverting more military funding for the wall.
Shelby told the Washington Post that he supported building the border wall but "I wish they'd get the money somewhere else, instead of defense."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who opposed the diversion last year as an abuse of Congress' traditional "power of the purse," called move to channel more funds from military construction "outrageous."
Reed, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, said in a statement that "what President Trump is doing here is shortchanging our troops and taking resources from real, effective operational priorities and diverting them to build a wasteful political prop."
The position of Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, on wall funding has not changed, according to a Republican aide.
Thornberry backs increased border security but believes the resources should come from the Department of Homeland Security and not the Defense Department, the aide said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.