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President Donald Trump’s latest proposal to pay for a border wall by declaring a national emergency and taking money from disaster relief projects — potentially including money doled out after Hurricanes Irma and Maria — could include over $800 million doled out to Florida last year for disaster relief.
Several media outlets reported Thursday that Trump was eying a portion of $13.9 billion given to the Army Corps of Engineers by Congress for disaster relief projects. That amount includes an $802 million outlay to Florida, the largest chunk of which was $514 million to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.
Four members of Congress from Florida said they were not aware of any Florida-specific projects that could lose money to pay for the wall. Instead, money for projects in Puerto Rico and California could be used to give Trump the $5.7 billion he’s been demanding for a wall, according to members of Congress from California.
“The [disaster] funds are flowing to Florida, and they’re flowing to our district,” said Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a member of the House committee responsible for federal spending who represents part of the Naples area that saw heavy damage during Irma. “I would argue that it’s never fast enough, but the funds are flowing in our district. They’re going to all the cities, they’re going to all the municipalities. Florida’s got the money.”
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Diaz-Balart, who is critical of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to include $5.7 billion in wall money in the House spending bills, said the impasse should be solved legislatively rather than Trump declaring a national emergency to find money for the wall. Such a move would bypass Congress’ power of the purse and likely set off litigation.
Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who also serves on the spending committee that distributed billions in relief funds, said Democrats and Republicans will not allow any money to be diverted for a wall from other projects approved by Congress.
“The president is still being very vague about where he’s going to pull these funds from,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Senator [Marco] Rubio and I have been talking and we’re working together to address and make it clear that raiding those funds would be unacceptable.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that 13 specific water-related projects in California and Puerto Rico could see funds diverted for Trump’s $5.7 billion demand. The California projects total $2.46 billion, while the Puerto Rico projects total $2.5 billion. None of the Florida members interviewed by the Miami Herald on Friday were aware of any potential Florida projects that could be included to drum up more border money.
On Friday, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, said that it would not be acceptable for Trump to take funds from hurricane relief to pay for a border wall.
“We have people counting on that,” DeSantis told reporters in Tallahassee. “If they backfill it immediately after the government opens, that’s fine but I don’t want that to be where that money is not available for us.”
DeSantis’ comments Friday struck a different tone than when he was asked about the shutdown on Thursday — before news broke that Florida’s hurricane funding could be in sacrificed for the border wall. DeSantis, an ally of Trump who campaigned as a supporter of the president’s agenda, said then that he has his “hands full down here,” indicating he didn’t want to get involved in all the “political posturing” in Washington.
A spokesman for Republican Sen. Rick Scott said Scott spoke with Trump on Thursday night and said “at this time, we have no reason to believe that Florida disaster funds will be repurposed for any reason.”
The discussion of disaster funds is the latest development in what will become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, as the Senate formally adjourned on Friday until Monday afternoon, meaning the impasse will last at least 24 days. Federal workers received $0 paychecks on Friday, and Miami International Airport announced that one of its terminals will shut down this weekend as TSA agents continue to work without being paid.
“I don’t think [Trump] understands that when he makes a statement like that, that it affects thousands and thousands of people, people that voted for him,” said Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat who represents Florida Keys communities still recovering after Hurricane Irma. “He’s affecting thousands of Americans because of this personal obsession with a wall that makes absolutely no sense.”
If Trump does declare a national emergency to pay for his wall there doesn’t appear to be many sources of funding that House members would be willing to give away. The top Republican on the committee that oversees the military said he wouldn’t support Department of Defense dollars being spent on the wall.
“I don’t know how much money is realistically available that is not already destined for some really important area,” Diaz-Balart said
North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a conservative Republican who is close to the president, downplayed the idea that disaster funds could be used and said that Trump should instead use civil-asset forfeiture funds to pay for a wall, though Diaz-Balart was wary of any emergency funding for a wall that bypasses Congress’ power.
“Can you find some money? Yes. But are there billions and billions of dollars sitting around doing nothing that are not going to be spent on important things? I don’t foresee that happening,” Diaz-Balart said.
Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings, now the longest-serving member of Congress from Florida, said any move to declare a national emergency for wall funding would be the latest example of presidential overreach.
“I don’t understand this guy, man, I really don’t,” Hastings said. “He’ll get his comeuppance, it’s just a matter of time.”
Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times staff writer Emily Mahoney and Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.