Tapping California, Puerto Rico Aid for Wall Sparks Furor

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration is considering diverting money Congress earmarked for disaster aid after a series of hurricanes and wildfires to pay for a wall on the nation’s southern border, an idea that drew a swift rebuke from lawmakers in the affected areas.

The White House is looking in particular at diverting funds from seven Army Corps of Engineers flood-control projects in California and six in Puerto Rico, California Representative John Garamendi said in an interview. The money would come from $13.9 billion in projects funded by Congress last year that also include Texas, Louisiana and Florida.

“It’s reprehensible," said Garamendi, who has served as the top Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. “It’s absolutely astounding the president would put at risk the lives of literally millions of Americans so he can go build his wall.” He declined to say how he obtained the information about the targeted projects.

Those projects include $1.57 billion to improve levees protecting Sacramento from the American River, and another $1.55 billion to manage flooding from the Rio Puerto Nuevo in San Juan.

A Pentagon spokesman acknowledged that it is researching ways to pay for the wall, but said no decision has been made.

“The Department of Defense is reviewing available authorities and funding mechanisms to identify options to enable border barrier construction,” Navy Captain Bill Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman, said by email. “As there has not been such a declaration made, it would be inappropriate to comment further on those efforts.”

If Trump declares a national emergency he could try to divert funding for those Army Corps of Engineer projects or for up to $23 billion in unspent military construction funds.

“He should not be raiding that money. It is desperately needed,” said Representative Katie Porter, a California Democrat.

Trump said Friday he is considering the move but is in no hurry.

“I want the Democrats to come back to Washington and to vote,” he said from the White House. “If they can’t do it I will declare a national emergency.”

On Thursday, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service released a report examining the question of whether the Defense Department is permitted to construct the border wall. It concluded that if Trump invoked his authority to order emergency military construction, that action “is likely to be vigorously litigated.”

New York Democrat Max Rose said “The Constitution doesn’t say when you don’t get your way you can declare an emergency and raid the money.”

Jeniffer Gonzalez Colon, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in the House -- a Republican who has supported Trump’s wall -- also blasted the president.

“As resident commissioner, I vehemently reject playing this game with our pain and hopes,” Gonzalez Colon said in a press release. “Congress approved and President Trump put his signature on this allocation of money with an express purpose, and our people don’t deserve this treatment.”

The move to tap disaster aid funds is facing opposition from Republicans as well.

“I feel confident that disaster relief or mitigation will not be tapped," said House Ways and Means Committee top Republican Kevin Brady -- a close ally of Trump. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio vowed in a tweet to “do everything I can to overturn such a decision.”

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows suggested that asset forfeitures could be tapped instead of disaster aid.

The administration has acknowledged that any attempt to circumvent Congress to tap the funds will get tied up in court.

“If it ever came to that I would expect the courts would be involved, but we would be involved explaining the nature of this crisis," Vice President Mike Pence told reporters Thursday.

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