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Senate GOP plans to divert health, education funds to border wall

$5 billion move would set up clash with Democratic House over fiscal 2020 spending

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby  plans for his committee to begin marking up spending bills when Congress returns in September. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby  plans for his committee to begin marking up spending bills when Congress returns in September. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Republicans are looking to pay for President Donald Trump’s border wall in part by putting about $5 billion less in the largest domestic spending bill, several people with knowledge of the process said.

That move signals a likely fight over wall funding, as well as over Trump’s ability to reprogram or transfer funds to the border, when the fiscal 2020 appropriations process resumes after Congress returns in September.

[For spending bills, now comes the hard part]

According to several people familiar with the process, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican, wrote an allocation for the fiscal 2020 Labor-HHS-Education spending bill that is about $5 billion lower than it would have been to provide funding for the wall.

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Congress and the White House reached agreement on a budget deal raising discretionary spending caps for fiscal 2020-21, clearing the way for the Senate Appropriations Committee to begin marking up spending bills. The panel has held back action thus far in anticipation of a bipartisan, bicameral topline agreement, finally reached late last month.

[What the two-year budget deal means for federal spending]

Trump’s push for funding to extend barriers on the southern border, combined with many Democrats’ opposition to it, is likely to produce a clash in the fall. Congress earlier approved $1.3 billion in wall funding for fiscal 2019. Trump asked for an additional $8.6 billion in his fiscal 2020 budget for border barriers — $5 billion in Department of Homeland Security construction accounts, and $3.6 billion for the Pentagon to assist with the project.

Trump earlier this year declared a border emergency and tapped existing statutes to shift $6.7 billion mainly from Pentagon budgets to fund wall construction. The Supreme Court last month cleared the way for the administration to divert $2.5 billion out of defense programs for the wall, blocking a challenge from environmental and other groups.

Shelby’s provision for wall funding is not surprising. At the very least, it sets the table for a negotiation with the Democrat-led House, which did not include any wall funds in its Homeland Security bill, and sought to tie the administration’s hands in transferring military and other funds to the border project.

Still ‘generous′

In the Senate, it takes 60 votes to end debate to pass appropriations bills. While many Senate Democrats are expected to oppose $5 billion in wall funds, one former GOP aide said the Labor-HHS-Education bill may be “generous” enough to attract Democrats’ support despite their objections.

“I would guess the LHHS allocation is still pretty generous relative to last year, which was also a pretty generous allocation,” the former aide said on condition he not be identified. “It makes sense for Shelby’s allocations to skew right since the House’s will surely skew left.”

Senate Democrats also will have the chance to argue for changes more to their liking in a conference over House and Senate bills.

A Democratic aide said a brewing dispute over the White House’s review of foreign aid spending also could affect appropriations discussions in the fall.

Over the weekend, the Office of Management and Budget asked the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development to temporarily cease spending for a range of programs, in order to, in OMB’s words, ensure the money is being spent wisely. Some fear that could lead to the White House attempting to rescind or cancel the spending.

The aide said if the White House attempts to roll back appropriated spending, Democrats may be more resistant to any administration efforts to transfer funds in fiscal 2020 appropriations bills.

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