Durbin appeals to Shelby: 'Let's not waste any time' on defense bill compromise

By Tony Bertuca  
September 10, 2019 at 11:13 AM

As Congress again nears a shutdown deadline, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, today beseeched committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) to help forge a compromise to pass an on-time defense spending bill, earlier noting Democrats' continued objections to President Trump's use of Pentagon funds to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

"You and I are really doing good work together," Durbin told Shelby in an exchange heard on a "hot mic" after the conclusion of a brief subcommittee hearing. "I don't want to jeopardize this."

Shelby told Durbin he is doing everything he can to move the bill forward.

"You know it ain't me," he said.

Durbin continued: "If there's a way you and I can do something on this, let me know, buddy."

Shelby said he would speak with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and suggested Durbin speak with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

"Let's see if we can get together," Shelby said.

"Let’s not waste any time," Durbin said.

Earlier in the hearing, Durbin said he and fellow Democrats continue to oppose the president's emergency declaration, which cleared the way for the administration to divert $6.1 billion of Defense Department spending toward new border barriers without congressional approval.

About $3.6 billion is planned to come from 127 military construction projects being "deferred" inside and outside the United States. Another $2.5 billion has been reprogrammed to the wall effort from other Pentagon priorities.

"Congress cannot and should not be silent when the power of the purse is undermined in this way," Durbin said during the hearing. "Why are we here? Why do we have an appropriations committee if this president can ask for money for certain purposes, we appropriate it and then he ignores us and takes the money for his own political agenda? If all the work of hearings, investigations, debate and votes in this committee can be swept away by a signature on a reprogramming then why are we here?"

The new wall money, meanwhile, is being diverted in the hopes it will be "backfilled" by Congress, over the objections of Democrats and some Republicans.

The Democrat-run House’s defense appropriations and authorization bills would block all future use of DOD money to build the wall without first obtaining the consent of Congress.

Additionally, the House bills would restrict DOD's ability to reprogram money, something lawmakers warned of when the department, overturning decades of precedent, transferred $2.5 billion in funding to build border barriers without the approval of Congress.

The House sets the limit for DOD's total annual reprogramming authority at $1 billion, compared to the $5 billion requested for FY-20 and the current level of $4 billion. The bills also limit annual Overseas Contingency Operations reprogramming to $500 million, compared to $4.5 billion in the budget request and the current level of $2 billion.

Durbin said Democrats would come to the full committee hearing on Thursday seeking amendments to the defense appropriations bill related to the wall and DOD's reprogramming authority.

"I am certain my colleagues and I will be ready on Thursday in full committee to ask this subcommittee and all the members of the appropriations committee to stand up for our own constitutional responsibility," he said.