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Senate Democrats press Pentagon officials on wall funding in budget

By Patty Nieberg, Medill News Service
Senate Democrats press Pentagon officials on wall funding in budget
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R.-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, speaks with acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan at the committee's hearing on Thursday. Photo by Patty Nieberg/Medill News Service/UPI

March 14 (UPI) -- Democratic senators on Thursday demanded answers from Department of Defense officials about military funding for President Donald Trump's emergency declaration at the U.S.-Mexico border during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the fiscal 2020 budget.

"I can't tell you how wrong this is. This is abusive," said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., about the president's emergency declaration. "I can guarantee that if you let this happen, it'll happen under the next president and the next president."

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Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and David L. Norquist, the Pentagon's comptroller, appeared before the committee to defend the White House's request for $750 billion in national defense, which includes $164 billion toward the war fund -- known as overseas contingency operations, or OCO. But Democrats were mostly focused on the wall.

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Ranking member Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Democratic Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Angus King of Maine and Gary Peters of Michigan, also pressed for details of $3.6 billion spending for president's the border wall.

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Dunford told lawmakers that there were 6,000 U.S. troops at the U.S.-Mexico border, 28,500 in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and several hundred in the Baltic states that border Russia.

"So we have lots of other troops around the world on other countries borders, does it cause you any disquiet that we have troops on our border?" Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., asked. Dunford said no.

King questioned whether the border money would come out of projects already approved by Congress. Norquist explained that projects designated in fiscal budgets may not be immediate and could begin in fiscal years 2020 or 2021, so the effects were unclear. Shanahan also said that money for the wall may reduce or cancel other military projects that were listed previously, but could not identify which ones were at risk.

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"Why? You've had a month. I find it very hard to believe there's not a list," King said. "Something's not computing here. The $3.6 is coming from somewhere."

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pushed back on the total amount requested by the Pentagon, saying the OCO budget was 140 percent more than in fiscal year 2019. She pointed out that there are roughly 2,100 troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria combined, which Warren said was mostly "unchanged from last year." As a result, the OCO request did not align with a need for more money toward current conflicts.

The $165 billion request amounted to creating a "slush fund" intended "to hide what's happening with defense spending," she said.

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Dunford and Shanahan also addressed the increased threat of China and Russia, as well as modernization of nuclear and cyber capabilities.

Sen. Fischer, R-Neb., asked whether cyber could substitute nuclear weapons to assuage those opposed to the idea, but Dunford reiterated the need for nuclear modernization.

Democrats also expressed skepticism about the addition of a proposed Space Force to the military, and Shanahan defended the new branch as a need for building a competitive advantage.

"We have a chance to build it from the bottom up," Shanahan said. "It's an opportunity to build it correctly."

"Your responses were as efficient as I expect the Space Force to be," quipped Sen. Kevin Cramer, D-N.D.

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