Connecticut lawmakers criticize Trump's dip into military projects for wall

While no projects in their districts are at risk, Connecticut's Democratic lawmakers in Congress are pushing back against the Trump administration's decision to divert $3.6 billion in military construction funds to help build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Lawmakers received word this week from Defense Secretary Mark Esper that the funding will come from 127 military construction projects, about half in the U.S. and the other half overseas.

The projects — including schools, target ranges and maintenance facilities in 23 states, 19 countries and three U.S. territories — will be killed to pay for the construction of 175 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, diverting a total $3.6 billion to President Donald Trump's long-promised barrier, the Associated Press reported.

The Pentagon acknowledged it may be difficult to fund the projects anew.

"These projects aren't just part of a wish list — funding is highly competitive, and is vetted first at the Pentagon before submittal to Congress, and has to satisfy a basic test of military value," U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said in a statement.

Capitol Hill Democrats, outraged over Trump's use of an emergency order for the wall, promised they won't approve more money to revive the projects, AP reported. Responding to comments by the Trump administration that Congress could act to backfill the projects, Courtney said that's "fiscal fantasy, and sets a dangerous and irresponsible precedent."

The Pentagon already diverted about $2.5 billion through a drug interdiction fund to construct about 150 miles of border wall. That decision was authorized by then acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan.

The new money will fund 11 military construction projects along the U.S-Mexico border that will "deter illegal entry, increase the vanishing time of those illegally crossing the border, and channel migrants to ports of entry," Esper said.

Courtney said whether Trump can reprogram the funds without authorization from Congress — "a complete break in precedent" — is being challenged in the court system, and that "it is extremely unwise for Secretary Esper to gouge his own Department before the constitutional question is resolved."

The House, in its version of an annual defense policy bill, included a provision that would limit the Pentagon's authority to transfer funding. The Senate's version of the bill does not include that version. Both sides still need to meet to work out the differences in the two versions and come up with a final spending plans.

U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal also put out statements criticizing the decision.

"Robbing military construction projects to pay for an unnecessary Trump vanity project is as illogical as it is illegal. Misappropriating Congressional funds for the Trump border wall isn't simply a waste of money — it further compromises military readiness, entrenches the Pentagon in immigration enforcement support, and politicizes our servicemembers," Blumenthal said.

Murphy is among a group of senators asking the Pentagon for "a full justification of how the decision to cancel was made for each project selected and why a border wall is more important to our national security and the wellbeing of our service members and their families than these projects."

Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon comptroller, said the now-unfunded projects are not being canceled. Instead, the Pentagon is saying the military projects are being "deferred."

The Pentagon reviewed the list of those projects and said none that provided housing or critical infrastructure for troops would be affected, in the wake of recent scandals over poor living quarters for service members in several parts of the country, AP reported. Defense officials also said they would focus on projects set to begin in 2020 and beyond, with the hope that the money could eventually be restored by Congress.

The government will spend the military housing money on 11 wall projects in California, Arizona and Texas, the administration said in a filing Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, AP reported.

Trump has so far succeeded in building replacement barriers within the 654 miles of fencing built during the Obama and Bush administrations, according to AP. The funding shift will allow for about 115 miles of new pedestrian fencing in areas where there isn't any now.

"The wall is being built. It's going up rapidly," Trump said Wednesday. "And we think by the end of next year, which will be sometime right after the election actually, but we think we're going to have close to 500 miles of wall, which will be complete."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

j.bergman@theday.com

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