The Senate defense appropriations panel on Tuesday advanced its $695 billion fiscal year 2020 spending bill, which is set to face significant debate over the Pentagon’s reprogramming authorities following the recent transition of billions of dollars away from military construction projects to fund the border wall effort. 

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), subcommittee ranking member, said Democrats plan to introduce a series of reprogramming amendments to the bill when the full appropriations committee considers the legislation on Thursday.

Low angled view of the U.S. Capitol East Facade Front in Washington, DC.

Durbin, during his remarks at Tuesday’s mark-up hearing, noted the Pentagon’s decision earlier this year to transfer $2.5 billion without congressional approval to the president’s border wall, as well as a new announcement last week that DoD planned to move an additional $3.6 billion from 127 military construction projects to build portions of the wall. 

“The cancellation of these projects was based on a national emergency declared by the president that was rejected on its face by both houses of Congress with bipartisan votes,” Durbin said. “Congress cannot and should not be silent when the power of the purse is undermined in this way. Why are we here? Why do we have an appropriations committee if this president can ask for money for certain purposes we’ve appropriated and then he ignores us, and he takes the money for his own political agenda.”

The debate arrives as lawmakers are seeking to push through an array of spending bills just weeks ahead of the end of the fiscal year and avoid the likely outcome of having to keep the government open under a continuing resolution.

The Senate in early August passed a two-year budget deal, avoiding the threat of sequestration, and setting the toplines for the next two fiscal years at $738 billion and $741.5 billion (Defense Daily, Aug. 1). 

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), vice chairman of the appropriations committee, in a statement said he plans to introduce an amendment “to undo the president’s actions on the wall, and to limit his flexibility to transfer and reprogram money,” calling for bipartisan support to help move the bill forward. 

The nearly $700 billion spending includes $622.5 billion base funding, $70.6 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations funding and $1.7 billion in emergency funding.

“The bill before you continues to increase funding for our nation’s defense that meets the objectives of our National Defense Strategy by improving readiness, investing in innovation and bolstering the combat effectiveness of the Department of Defense,” said  Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the appropriations committee chairman. “This year we’re off to a late start here but with the certainty of the budget agreement, stable two-year funding and the decision by all parties to eliminate poison pills, I see no reason why we cannot repeat the success of FY2019.” 

The defense appropriation panel’s bill fully funds many service budget requests, including procurement of 96 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 12 KC-46A tankers, and 24 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. 

The bill also funds $24.4 billion for 14 shipbuilding projects, including two Virginia-class submarines, three DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyers, one future frigate and two large unmanned surface vessels. 

For the Army, the defense panel included an additional $150.6 million for hypersonics development and added $75.6 million to accelerate development of the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft.