This article by Bryan Lowry, first appeared in the Kansas City Star on February 12, 2019
If President Donald Trump isn’t satisfied with the amount of money for border security in a proposed deal Congress could pass this week, Sen. Roy Blunt knows where he can find more.
Blunt, the No. 4 Republican in the U.S. Senate, was one of 17 lawmakers tasked with crafting a deal on border security to avert another shutdown.
The accord provides $1.375 billion for physical barriers at the southern border, significantly less than the $5.7 billion that Trump had demanded for a wall.
But Blunt and other GOP lawmakers say Trump can add more cash to the deal by using his transfer authority to steer already-appropriated funds toward border security—instead of declaring a national emergency. Blunt plans to talk to the president about places where he can find additional dollars.
As an example, the Missouri Republican pointed to nearly $900 million in anti-drug trafficking funds appropriated to the Department of Defense.
“I’m sure they very likely already have in mind what they’d like to do with that $881 million, but if the president was looking for $881 million that he controls he can look at what they wanted to do with it and decide if barriers would be a more important use,” said Blunt, who helped shepherd the Defense budget to passage last year.
“It’s certainly a specifically approved use in drug trafficking areas and these areas would all fit that definition.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said he would be supportive of the president employing “whatever tools he can legally use to enhance his efforts to secure the border.”
Blunt said lawmakers would prefer Trump use his transfer authority to secure additional funds rather than declare a national emergency. In 2016, he urged President Barack Obama to exercise that prerogative to increase support for combating the Zika Virus.
Blunt has discussed this idea with Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, a close ally of Trump in the Senate.
However, Graham expressed skepticism Tuesday that there is enough money available through such shifts to reach the full amount Trump wants. He predicted that Trump would still pursue a national emergency declaration.
“There’s some accounts that you would not need to declare an emergency over to access for barriers, but I don’t know that it gets you to 5.7 (billion),” Graham said.
Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group, said GOP lawmakers are undermining their own authority as appropriators by encouraging Trump to shift funds within the budget to pay for a border wall.
“I recognize the bigger picture that they’re operating under, that they’re desperate not to have another shutdown… to not have a fight with the president of their own party,” Ellis said. “They’re trying to find ways to keep the president from blowing this whole thing up.”
The White House has previously said it is investigating other ways to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. One scenario floated has been to use money from the Army Corps of Engineers.
Ellis said the White House has still provided significantly fewer details about what it actually wants to construct at the border compared to any Army Corps of Engineers’ project currently budgeted.
“It does feel like you’re arguing over Jell-o rather than real substance,” Ellis said.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, said he would support reshuffling already appropriated money in order to prevent another shutdown.
“There’s no really good solution out there,” Inhofe said. “It would be very easy to put holes in any of them. The issue here is whether or not things are going to shut down and I can’t find a lot of members who want that to happen, so I’d say do something unpopular rather than nothing at all.”
Trump’s administration faced backlash last year when it shifted money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Both agencies fall under the Department of Homeland Security budget, the same budget which would pay for a border wall.
But that transfer took place before Democrats took control of the U.S. House. Democrats would have new leverage if the agency sought to transfer money for a border wall.
Andrea Drusch and Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report.