- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2020

House Democrats have their eyes set on including language in the next defense bill drastically limiting President Trump’s option on funding his prized border wall, and are gearing up to make an even bigger push to block funding after failing to prevent the White House from tapping Pentagon accounts for the wall this week for the second straight year.

Senior Democratic aides said that a leading House chairman is rallying support to block future transfers of military construction and counter-drug money next year — money the administration has reprogrammed for wall construction. One senior aide said members of the House Democratic Caucus are “hyper-focused” on limiting spending on the wall construction.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat, has been one of the leading voices in the ongoing effort to restrict the funds transfer for this purpose.

Earlier this week, Mr. Smith said he will “absolutely” seek language in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to restrict Mr. Trump’s reported plans to transfer $7.2 billion from the military construction and counter-drug funds.

Last year’s efforts fell through once it became all but certain Mr. Trump would not sign the legislation into law if the bill included policy to prevent the reprogramming.

“The White House blocked it and wasn’t going to allow it,” Mr. Smith said, “and the budget agreement had already been done by the time we got to our conference on NDAA.”

After a 35-day government shutdown caused by the dispute, Democrats ultimately compromised on $1.375 billion for the project that was included in the recently approved spending bill, and left out language to restrict the president from using additional funds for the project.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Times he “would strongly support measures that would stop [Mr. Trump’s] blatant law breaking that threatens our national defense,” calling it a “betrayal to our men and women in uniform and only increasing their risk by depriving them of the essential tools they need.”

Last year, the Pentagon published a list of projects that would be “paused” in order to finance more border wall construction, including repairs to military bases that have been damaged in recent hurricanes or natural disasters, and improvements to schools in bases around the world.

Mr. Smith told reporters there is “bipartisan opposition” to diverting funds for Defense Department projects, “so we’ll explore that bipartisan opposition and see where we’re at.”

The main legal backing the administration has cited in reprogramming the funds is language in the Pentagon’s counter-drug account, which states the authorized money can be used to build barriers to restrict illegal drugs from flowing through the border. Experts say lawmakers are unlikely to get around this statute after a court ruled the administration is abiding by the limitations of the purpose of the budget.

“The basic authorities that allow the president to divert the money are still there, and the NDAA does not change those authorities,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You have to get the money into some place that has the authority to build a wall. And the counter-drug account has that attribute.”

In an interview, the former Office of Management and Budget official said that he was “astounded” by the result after being “sure that [House lawmakers were] going to make some sort of deal to constrain those authorities.”

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