Democrats face politically anxious options in opposing President Trump’s move to divert $3.6 billion in military funds to build 175 miles of his border wall.
The legislative responses available to Democrats are few, given that the courts have largely ruled in the administration’s favor when it comes to emergency powers and the transfer of Pentagon funds. Pressing the issue runs the risk of derailing government funding legislation that Congress needs to pass by Oct. 1 to avoid another shutdown.
While Democrats have pledged not to backfill accounts for the 127 military construction projects being stopped by the Pentagon for wall construction, standing firm could allow Trump to blame them for reduced funding for military projects. And Democrats know that trying to add severe language about the wall to any funding bills this month could increase the odds of another shutdown.
They’re cautious of risking a shutdown over what’s likely to be a short-term stopgap measure and would rather address the issue as part of a wider funding debate later this year.
“The goal of keeping the government open would outweigh a provision the White House would never agree to,” said a Democratic aide. But Democrats have pushed back by ruling out a request by the Office of Management and Budget to free up border wall funds as part of any forthcoming stopgap. That prompted a speed reprimand from the White House on Wednesday.
“After more than a year of denying there was a crisis at the border, Democrats have now decided it’s good politics to refuse critical resources for the same crisis they now admit is real,” said a senior administration official. “It’s time Congressional Democrats end the stunt, and do what’s right to end this crisis and protect the American border.”
The back-and-forth on Wednesday came a day after Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the funding policy in a letter to congressional leaders.
“The funds being made available are associated only with deferred military construction projects that are not scheduled for award until fiscal year 2020 or later and do not include any family housing, barracks, or dormitory projects,” Esper wrote in a letter announcing the policy.
That did little to appease Democrats, who also rejected Esper’s characterization that the reprogramming was nothing more than a delay of project funding.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, made clear on Tuesday that she would not support backfilling the funds being diverted for the wall. “I reminded his Administration today that I will not support this theft from our military and that down the road, the House of Representatives will not backfill any projects he steals from today,” she said.
But that position could prove tricky for Democrats since it would let Republicans argue that Democrats are willing to hold military projects hostage due to their opposition to the wall.
Another possible line of attack for Democrats could be a renewed attempt to overturn Trump’s emergency declaration, a move that would force a Senate vote and require Republicans in both chambers to go again on the record on the Trump administration bypassing Congress.
Trump in March vetoed Congress’s attempt to cancel his declaration. But Democrats can force another vote every six months, and that could create a dilemma for GOP lawmakers whose states or districts stand to lose out on military construction projects under the diversion of funds.