Politics & Government

Republicans say SC will recoup military funds taken for border wall. They can’t be sure

South Carolina Republicans are confident their state will recoup nearly $11 million President Donald Trump has diverted for construction of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott said he received personal assurances from acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, a former S.C. GOP congressman, that a new fire station planned for Laurel Bay — the community for families of service members stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort — would still be completed on schedule.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a senior Republican on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, told The State he’d heard the same, directly from Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.

“We’re confident that the Laurel Bay Fire Station project will be fully funded and completed as scheduled,” Brian Symmes, a spokesman for S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, agreed in a statement.

Yet none of these Republicans were able to explain how or why they were so confident, when the mechanisms for getting the money back are far from simple and Trump administration officials don’t get to decide how these funds are made available.

And in the meantime, the Beaufort military community will continue to rely on a fire station that the Navy determined had, as of late 2018, already “reached the end of its life expectancy” and currently poses a number of major health and safety risks for the people who work there and the military families it serves.

Earlier this year, Trump declared a “national emergency” in response to the influx of undocumented immigrants crossing into the United States at the southern border.

This official declaration enabled the Pentagon, on Sept. 3, to take $3.6 billion intended to fund 127 pre-approved military construction projects around the country and direct that money toward building Trump’s long-promised border wall instead.

The Pentagon has insisted that these projects, including the Laurel Bay fire station, are not canceled but simply delayed until Congress passes an appropriations bill that “backfills” the money.

“The (Defense) Department has been very transparent in requesting full backfill for all projects as part of its (fiscal year 2020) budget request,” Chris Mitchell, a Defense Department spokesman, told The State in an email this week. “If that is enacted into law by Congress and funds are appropriated as requested, there should be little to no effect on the construction timeline.”

It could be that Wilson, Scott, McMaster and others are working off the assumption the cash will soon become available in this way.

But it also appears they are taking high-ranking Trump administration officials at their word that everything will be alright, despite the reality that these officials have no control over the process.

In reality, the projects will not be able to proceed without an act of Congress: the legislative branch is the only entity that can designate funding for these types of initiatives.

And this won’t happen as long as Democrats control the U.S. House and enjoy leverage in the U.S. Senate. They oppose border wall construction and have pledged to make it difficult for Trump to procure the funds.

“Congressional Democrats have been clear: We will not give the President a blank check by backfilling the military construction projects he has canceled to pay for the border wall,” two senior Democrats on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee said in a statement Wednesday.

GOP leaders: SC will get money back

South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from Seneca, has been among the most unapologetic about the dynamic at play.

“I’ve talked to the Pentagon and said we’ll find a way to get the fire station but we’re gonna get the wall first,” he said. “I’m okay with the decision.”

Others in the state’s congressional delegation, however, went a step further, expressing confidence that the project would be completed on time even as the border wall got built.

Wilson told The State he received a personal phone call from Spencer around the time the Pentagon announced the diversion of funds, at which point Spencer “said the start date has been delayed but the completion date is on schedule.”

Asked how Spencer could make that promise with such certainty, Wilson said, “I have absolute faith in Secretary Spencer, so what he stated, I accept that what he stated is correct. And his integrity — my experience with him has always been very positive.”

Likewise, Scott said he called the White House and Mulvaney and Spencer gave him “assurances that the project will begin and end on time,” explaining that “the resources they have for the next fiscal year will allow them to make up the difference.”

Scott said he did not ask Mulvaney and Spencer to explain how the administration had such resources available, though he suggested it was simply a matter of getting the money backfilled — though, again, there is no indication members of Congress will agree to do this.

The Pentagon’s press office did not respond to requests for comment about what it might have told the lawmakers.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, the Democrat whose district includes the Beaufort base, has had no direct conversations with administration officials or received any sense there might be some way of keeping the project on track short of Congress backfilling the funds.

Congress holds key, Cunningham says

Cunningham is in a different situation than Wilson, Scott and other members of the S.C. Congressional delegation.

The Republican lawmakers must navigate a politically perilous situation where they have to reconcile their support for Trump’s border wall while acknowledging their state has been hurt by the effort and trying to assuage concerns about the outcome.

Cunningham, on the other hand, as a Democrat has the freedom to express his opposition to both the emergency declaration and the effect it will have on Laurel Bay.

However, as of the 2020 election cycle’s most vulnerable freshman incumbents, Cunningham might also find himself in a tough position as the two parties fight over putting the $3.2 billion back into the system.

On Tuesday, he was one of six Democrats in the U.S. House to vote for an unsuccessful Republican procedural measure calling for the reinstatement of the funds.

He could at some point be pressured to demand his leadership backfill the money in an appropriations bill.

Cunningham’s spokeswoman, Rebecca Drago, said he’s not quite there yet. House Democrats passed a short-term government spending bill this week that did not address the military construction project funding, which Cunningham supported.

“Joe’s said from the very beginning that President Trump shouldn’t take this money from important military construction projects,” Drago said. “We continue to support efforts to overturn the executive order.”

Tara Copp of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to reflect efforts to reach the Pentagon for comment.

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.