WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has no plans to take money from Louisiana flood control projects to pay for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, a White House spokesman said Saturday as the administration sought to ease concerns that have been raised about that possibility.
“The President met with leadership of the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss methods of construction for the barriers along the southern border, but they did not discuss, and there are no plans to take money from disaster relief funding to pay for any potential projects," said Hogan Gidley, a deputy press secretary at the White House.
Several Louisiana lawmakers had said on Friday that they thought it was unlikely that Trump would tap U.S. Army Corp of Engineers dollars to build the wall under a presidential emergency declaration.
Multiple news organizations had reported on Thursday that the White House was considering invoking controversial emergency powers to tap funds for Corps flood-prevention projects authorized by Congress in a $13.9 billion disaster-relief package last year.
Trump has publicly weighed declaring an emergency to build the border wall — a key campaign promise — as a way to circumvent a showdown with Democrats on Capitol Hill over funding to build the wall, a standoff that's led to what is now a three-week partial shutdown of the federal government.
Louisiana landed more than $1.4 billion in construction funding from that pot for long-stalled Corps of Engineers projects in the state, including the Comite River Diversion Canal and the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Protection Project.
Most of those dollars have been earmarked for the project but haven't yet been spent, meaning the White House could potentially divert the money to other work under an emergency declaration.
But Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, said the Trump administration appears to be eyeing funding for other projects in other states.
Graves — who spent years in Congress fighting to fund the Comite, West Shore and other Corps of Engineers projects — said he'd been in touch with the White House, the Corps of Engineers and Trump administration budget officials and would "fight any effort to divert these important project funds."
The dollars the Trump administration is considering using to build a border wall "are not funds from Louisiana," Graves wrote on Facebook Friday.
"We are doing everything we can to work with the White House, Corps and others to temper the impact and urging them — should they move ahead with an emergency declaration — to only utilize funds that are not otherwise going to be spent in 2019 in order to create time to come back and replenish those dollars," Graves wrote.
Updated Friday, Jan. 11, with comments from Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., and Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge.
U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat from northern California, told Bloomberg Government on Friday that the Trump administration was instead targeting several billion dollars for seven flood-control projects in his state and six more projects in the U.S. island territory of Puerto Rico, which was ravaged by two deadly hurricanes in 2017.
Garamendi called the possibility of diverting those funds "reprehensible."
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, pointed to Garamendi's comments in a Tweet on Friday afternoon and added that he was "seeking further clarification from the administration."
Cassidy's communications director, Matt Wolking, tweeted that taking money from flood control projects in Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's home state of California "makes sense given that she won't give a single dollar for border security."
Trump administration officials are also reportedly considering using cash seized from drug cartels and money taken by the federal government in civil asset forfeitures — a sometimes-controversial procedure that allows the government to seize property allegedly used in a crime — to fund wall construction.
Cassidy has repeatedly suggested that idea to the Trump administration over the past year, billing the plan as a way to make "Mexican drug cartels" pay for the wall — a riff on Trump's unfilled campaign proposal to make the Mexican government fund construction.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, said Friday morning he'd received "no indication from the White House" that the Comite project or other Corps of Engineers projects in Louisiana might lose funding to cover wall costs under an emergency declaration.
Kennedy didn't indicate whether he'd received assurances they wouldn't be impacted, but he defended Trump's insistence on fighting for the dollars and quickly attacked congressional Democrats for not agreeing to fund border wall construction.
"What I do know is that it is impossible to secure a 1,900 mile border without using a barrier," Kennedy said. "The reason that part of the federal government is shut down is because Speaker Pelosi hates President Trump more than she wants border security."
Graves said he's long supported better security measures on the border with Mexico — including a physical wall in at least some stretches — but expressed frustration over the current political stalemate in Congress and accused some Democrats of blocking funding for border wall construction "strictly because of politics."
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"It’s ridiculous that we’re in this predicament, that the government is partially shuttered, that federal employees aren’t getting paid right now and that it has come to the president making an emergency declaration to divert billions of dollars from important projects to protect our southern border," said Graves, who's asked that his own pay be withheld until the standoff ends.
Graves said he doesn't believe using an emergency declaration to build the wall, a move that's sure to draw legal challenges in federal court, "is an option that should have to be on the table — and the precedent does concern me."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was modified on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019, to correct the construction funding level for Louisiana flood projects. The correct number is $1.4 billion, not $1.2 billion. The Advocate regrets the error.
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