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Lawmakers tell Mattis not to divert military funds for border wall

Border Patrol on horses stop by while testing is underway of a border wall prototype on Dec. 1, 2017 in Tijuana, Mexico. (Alejandro Tamayo/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

A group of Democratic lawmakers are urging Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to reject a request by the Department of Homeland Security to divert an estimated $450 million in military funding to help build a wall along the U.S. southern border.

The lawmakers, which include Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking Democrat for the House Armed Services Committee, told Mattis in a letter dated Sept. 5 that the effort is an attempt to circumvent Congress to take money away from military readiness and infrastructure to support the construction of 31 miles of border wall.

The letter was issued the same day that President Donald Trump reiterated his threat of shutting down the government if the U.S.-Mexico border wall is not funded. The wall is a marquee issue for Trump, who initially campaigned on the promise that Mexico would pay for its construction.

“It is utterly irresponsible and appalling that President Trump wants to take away funding for military readiness and infrastructure in order to spend it on his border wall,” Smith said Thursday in a statement. “We are trying to ensure that our men and women in uniform have the facilities and training they need to face serious dangers while defending our country. If Secretary Mattis follows through on this request, it would undermine those efforts. President Trump should not be taking away money from our troops and spending it on his wall.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Homeland Security spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on congressional correspondence as a matter of policy.

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Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday that the Defense Department is reviewing its authorities and funding options to construct a new “border barrier system” in Arizona along an active Marine Corps and Air Force bombing range that shares a 37-mile border with Mexico. The Defense and Homeland Security departments have worked together to determine specifications of the barrier system, he said.

Davis also confirmed the $450 million estimate for the barrier and Navy Facility Engineering Command is expected to begin surveys soon for the project, the spokesman said.

The department intends to reinforce an estimated 31 miles of fencing “with an additional 30-foot barrier that includes an all-weather patrol road, and vehicle and pedestrian access gates, enhancements which have proven successful along other parts of the southern border,” Davis said.

In March, Trump tweeted the wall should be built through “M,” which stood for military, according to media reports. Frustrated, Trump then issued an April 4 memorandum requesting state governors deploy National Guard troops to the southern border until the wall is built. All four southern border states – Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California – pledged more than 2,000 troops to provide border security assistance. Several other states have also provided support.

In April, Mattis testified to lawmakers on Capitol Hill that any portion of the military’s budget used to cover Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border might only amount to fencing structures along nearby bombing ranges. Some lawmakers questioned whether such an effort is legally plausible, while some experts have said the answer lies in an extensive review of appropriations law.

In May, a Pentagon spokeswoman said the initial deployment through the month of September was expected to cost $182 million.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security transmitted a request to the Defense Department to enhance existing border fencing and construct new border infrastructure along 31 miles of the Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona, the lawmakers explained in their letter to Mattis. The cost of that effort is $450 million, they said.

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Smith was joined in his letter to Mattis by Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., ranking Democrat for the House Appropriations Committee; Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., ranking Democrat for the House Appropriations defense subpanel, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who is ranking Democrat for the House Appropriations military construction and veterans affairs subpanel.

“We write to express our strong opposition to the use of Department of Defense funds for this purpose and respectfully urge you to deny the Department of Homeland Security’s request,” the lawmakers told Mattis in the letter. They added, “we fail to see how diverting $450 million away from efforts to rebuild military readiness is in the department’s or the taxpayers’ best interests.”

Lowey called the proposal to divert the funds “outrageous,” especially considering the timing as the military faces a multitude of national security threats around the world. Lowey also called it a “reckless proposal” that endangers military readiness and undermines Congress’ constitutional powers.

Visclosky said the wall is not a Defense Department responsibility, and military leaders who testify on Capitol Hill are well aware of how the congressional authorization and appropriation process works.

Wasserman Schultz said the move would amount to a pointless sacrifice of military training and infrastructure spending.

“President Trump’s willingness to sacrifice our military’s training and infrastructure to pay for an ineffective border wall is a shameful betrayal of the uniformed men and women who keep this nation safe,” said Wasserman Schultz. “No one who bravely serves our country should be asked to sacrifice our military readiness to pay for this boondoggle.”

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