White House

How Democrats hope to protect California flood money if Trump declares a national emergency

With another potential government shutdown on the horizon, President Donald Trump remains coy about whether he’ll declare a national emergency to fund the border wall he promised during his 2016 campaign.

This week, he told reporters that he could use that power and divert money from the Army Corps of Engineers. Democrats worry that could mean taking money away from ongoing projects in Northern California, like raising Folsom Dam.

Trump insisted in remarks to reporters on Wednesday that even if the White House takes money from the Army Corps, “it’s not going to affect other projects.”

“They have so much money. They have a lot of money,” he said.

Democrats in Congress, however, aren’t taking any chances. They have begun drafting legislation to shield project funding that the president may be tempted to target.

California Rep. John Garamendi, for example, has written a bill that would restrict the president’s power to divert funding for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects — such as the ones underway to improve flood protection in the Sacramento region.

NBC News reported last month that the White House was considering pulling money from a $12 billion disaster relief fund for civil works projects to build the president’s long-promised wall on the border with Mexico, after House Democrats refused to allocate the $5.7 billion he has demanded.

Congress appropriated the disaster relief money in 2018, but it has not been legally obligated yet, which means it could still be repurposed for other uses.

Sacramento flood control

That funding includes $1.7 billion for Army Corps projects that would raise the Folsom Dam, upgrade levees in the Pocket and Little Pocket neighborhoods on the Sacramento River, prevent erosion of levees on both the Sacramento and American rivers, and widen the Sacramento Weir to release more water into the Yolo Bypass.

Yuba County is also slated to get $13.5 million for a flood-control project to protect Marysville. In the southern San Joaquin Valley, the Army Corps is prepared to spend $258 million for a dam safety project at Lake Isabella and $74 million to enlarge Success Lake.

Reports of the proposal drew immediate pushback from both Democrats and Republicans around the country. A spokesman for the White House subsequently stated that the president had “no plans to take money from disaster relief funding to pay for any potential projects.”

In recent days, new reports have emerged of a White House proposal to cull funds for the wall from military construction allocations, the Treasury Department, the Homeland Security Department, and the Army Corps projects.

The legal and political ramifications of such a move remain dicey. Even some Republicans in Congress are openly warning against an emergency declaration over concerns about the precedent it would set.

“I do think this is a route that we don’t want to go down,” Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday on Fox News. “Only if Congress gives the president no other choice but to declare an emergency declaration would he do so.”

McCaul also acknowledged that an emergency declaration would “immediately ... be tied up in the courts.”

Garamendi’s bill would strip the section of the 1986 Water Resources Development Act that allows the president to repurpose civil works funding in the event of a national emergency.

He first unveiled the proposal as an amendment to a House spending bill last month, and his office confirmed he would re-introduce the legislation if the president declares an emergency on the border.

The White House has floated the possibility of invoking a national emergency for more than a month as a way to go around congressional Democrats and fund wall construction.

Shutdown deadline approaching

The standoff between Trump and Democrats led to the longest government shutdown in history, and parts of the government risk again shutting down if Congress and the White House fail to extend a temporary spending deal past Feb. 15.

The president hinted last week that he might announce a national emergency during his second state of the union address to Congress. But Tuesday night, Trump opted only to reiterate his arguments for why the country needs to build a border wall. He appealed to Congress to “work together, compromise, and reach a deal that will truly make America safe.”

The specter of a national emergency continues to loom over the wall debate, as California Attorney General Xavier Becerra reinforced in the Democrats’ Spanish-language response to Trump’s speech.

“The idea of declaring a nonexistent state of emergency on the border, in order to justify robbing funds that belong to the victims of fires, floods, hurricanes, and droughts, to pay for the wall is not only immoral, it is illegal,” Becerra said, warning the White House that California is “ready to reject this foolish proposal in court the moment it touches the ground.”

In addition to Garamendi’s bill, Senate Democrats introduced legislation Monday that would prohibit the transfer of any funding from the Army Corps or military construction accounts to construct the president’s border wall following an emergency declaration. California Sen. Kamala Harris is one of the bill’s original co-sponsors.

An aide to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith confirmed the Washington Democrat has not ruled out legislative options to prevent the White House from tapping billions of dollars worth of military construction funds.

California is home to a number of U.S. Army and Navy construction projects that Congress approved funding for in 2018, including $176 million for Naval Base San Diego, $128 million for Naval Air Station Lemoore in Fresno County and $19 million for a Defense Distribution Depot in Tracy.

Emma Dumain contributed to this report.

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