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White House targets pet weapons projects to pay for border wall

Defense Department would shift $3.8 billion from fighters, ships and other programs that have widespread support on the Hill

Members of Border Angels hang a banner reading "Trump we will not pay for your wall" during a demonstration at the US-Mexico border in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, on Feb. 2.
Members of Border Angels hang a banner reading "Trump we will not pay for your wall" during a demonstration at the US-Mexico border in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, on Feb. 2. (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)

Pentagon officials have targeted weapons programs cherished by senior members of both parties in a Thursday request to shift $3.8 billion in Defense Department money to build more barriers on America’s border with Mexico.

The Trump administration’s plan, obtained by CQ Roll Call, would subtract funds from military programs such as the F-35 fighter jet, V-22 tiltrotor aircraft and National Guard and Reserve equipment, a transfer of funds notable for its indiscriminate effect on nearly every state.

Among those whose districts would be particularly hard hit is Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee who represents Ft. Worth, where Lockheed Martin builds the F-35s.

Granger is facing a primary challenge March 3 and has been criticized by her opponent for not sufficiently supporting the president’s priorities, including fully funding the wall.

On Thursday, Granger called the reprogramming a “reasonable approach” despite the F-35 cuts and said the jobs in her district will be preserved.

“I will continue to fight to fund all of the defense programs that are so vital to our nation and the men and women who build them, while supporting the President’s efforts to secure our southern border,” she said in a statement.

Nonetheless, it may prove difficult for the administration to convince the defense committees to permit the reprogramming, although the administration may choose to circumvent Congress and move the funds without lawmakers’ assent. The committees have traditionally approved all major reprogrammings, but there is no law requiring it.

Told of the possibility of the defense hardware cuts, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said, “I would not like it.” Bell Helicopter builds the V-22s at its plant in Amarillo, Texas, where many of Thornberry’s constituents work.

Later, in a statement, Thornberry called the move is “a violation of the separation of powers” that “requires Congress to take action.”

Thornberry, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, was dramatically more critical of Trump’s latest reprogramming for border money than the lawmaker has been about previous shifts of appropriated military construction funds. The new request is different for several reasons, notably that it targets mostly weapons programs that were added to the budget at Congress’s behest, a House Armed Services Committee Republican aide said.

Still, Thornberry has yet to decide what is meant by the “action” he advocated in his statement.

More importantly, he does not currently appear to have much Republican support.

Richard C. Shelby, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and its Defense panel, said he would support the requested transfer.

James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he wished Trump would have proposed using Department of Homeland Security money instead of Pentagon funds to bankroll more border wall work.

But Inhofe did not indicate he would oppose the president’s proposal and said he wants to talk to Trump about it.

Another senior Armed Services member, Colorado Republican Doug Lamborn, predicted cuts to programs such as the F-35 would be rejected. The F-35, the most expensive program in Pentagon history, has jobs sprinkled across nearly every state.

The administration would move the $3.8 billion to the Pentagon’s counterdrug program, from which officials can legally then move it to cover the cost of wall construction on the border.

To pay for it, the administration would cut two F-35B fighter jets to be used by the Marine Corps and money to procure parts for others being produced for the Air Force, according to the document.

Also on the chopping block are other Navy programs: two V-22 tiltrotor aircraft and a P-8A surveillance plane built by Boeing in Renton, Wash. Also targeted were funds to build an amphibious assault ship and an Expeditionary Fast Transport, which is a catamaran cargo ship.

The amphibious ships are built by Huntington Ingalls in Pascagoula, Miss. Those vessels are backed by Shelby, who has constituents who live nearby in Alabama and work on the ships. The cargo ship is built by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala.

Shelby said Thursday that the proposed cuts haven’t yet reached the level of harming national security. “But if we keep talking and taking it could affect it down the road,” he said. “I like the wall, I’ll support the president on this, but I wish they’d find the money somewhere else.”

Referring to the F-35 and V-22 cuts, the Pentagon said fiscal 2020 funding for these planes is “more than sufficient to keep the production line open and meet requirements.”

An administration official who spoke on condition of not being identified said all the funds requested for transfer are “above and beyond” what the Defense Department requested for fiscal 2020.

Too much money?

Generally, the rationale for taking the funds, as stated in the Pentagon document, is that the unspent money was either “excess” or was provided before they were needed.

Included on the Air Force cut list are four C-130J Hercules transport planes and eight MQ-9 Reaper surveillance and attack drones. Lockheed Martin builds the C-130Js in Marietta, Ga., and General Atomics builds the MQ-9 outside of San Diego.

The National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account would be subtracted by $1.3 billion. Congress funds this account each year for unspecified equipment. The money is never requested by the Pentagon though Guard and Reserve leaders welcome the additional money.

The National Guard also has plenty of supporters on Capitol Hill, not to mention every governor.

Army Humvee modernization funds would also be hit, amounting to a $100 million cut for Indiana’s AM General.

Nita M. Lowey of New York and Peter J. Visclosky of Indiana, who chair the House Appropriations Committee and its defense panel, respectively, assailed the new request in a statement. Visclosky’s district is near the AM General plant.

“While some of our Republican colleagues will lament the President’s decision, they enabled this theft by blocking our efforts to stop the President from raiding defense accounts,” they said. “Until they stand up to President Trump, our national security will continue to be threatened and our Constitutional system of government will continue to be undermined.”

In a letter to the Pentagon Thursday, Visclosky was scathing.

“I also have heard ad nauseum about the Department’s irreversible fealty to the National Defense Strategy, yet I am again witnessing your complicity in allowing resources needed by our military personnel to be siphoned off for the misguided effort at the southwest border that has no benefit for our national security,” he wrote.

Some of the funds are in the regular budget and some were included in the so-called Overseas Contingency Operations fund.

The White House requested $2 billion in new fiscal 2021 appropriations for the wall project in its new budget request submitted to Capitol Hill Monday. Last year, the Trump administration received nearly $1.4 billion in new border wall funding from Congress and announced plans to shift another $6.7 billion from previous funding, mainly from Defense Department accounts.

Patrick J. Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, warned that lawmakers wouldn’t be quick to replace the funding taken out of the military programs to pay for a wall their party views as wasteful and ineffective. “They have to understand that if they remove the money, we are not going to backfill it,” said Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.

Paul M. Krawzak, Jennifer Shutt and Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report.

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