The House Appropriations Committee has approved a spending bill that would block any transfer of Dept. of Defense construction funds to build further sections of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, one of President Trump’s priorities.

The measure, which the committee approved on May 9 by a 30-21 vote, also provides fiscal year 2020 boosts for the core military construction and Dept. of Veterans Affairs major-projects accounts, which funds VA hospitals and other health care facilities. [View bill text, excluding amendments, here. Border wall provision is Section 612.]

The provision related to the wall was the subject of lengthy debate during the committee’s session. It would prohibit spending or obligating any funds appropriated in fiscal 2015 through 2020 for military construction projects “to construct a wall, barrier, fence or road along the southern border of the United States” or for a road providing access to such a wall.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who chairs chairs the military construction-VA appropriations subcommittee—and is the bill’s prime author—said, “Whether or not we agree or disagree on the need for a wall, whether or not there is or is not a crisis at the border, I hope this committee can agree that funds for the wall should not be stolen from previously approved, vital military construction projects that are, to a dollar, a higher priority than any wall.”

The House panel rejected two GOP-sponsored amendments related to the wall, with the votes generally following party lines.

One amendment, proposed by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), sought to delete the wall funding provision. Harris argued that a wall could deter movement of heroin and fentanyl across the border. If the bill’s language isn’t changed, he said, “The message [to drug smugglers] is, ‘Come on in.’”

The other amendment, from Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), would have added $7.2 billion to the bill, with half of that amount going for the border wall and half for 'mil con' projects.

Mil Con, VA totals

The committee made little change in the bill’s underlying funding provisions for military construction or VA programs. The legislation would provide $10.5 billion in fiscal 2020 for the core military construction account, an increase of $207 million, or 2%, over the amount enacted for fiscal 2019.

In addition, the bill includes $2 billion for emergency repairs to military posts in North Carolina and Florida that were damaged by Hurricanes Michael and Florence.

The measure would increase VA's major construction projects' account by 9%, to $1.2 billion. Major projects are those that exceed $20 million. The largest project funded is a new medical facility in Louisville, Ky., which would receive $410 million.

The legislation also would slash the minor projects line-item 35%, to $399 million.

Infrastructure 'Bonus'

In addition, the bill has $1 billion for VA infrastructure, including $850 million for seismic-related improvements.

For fiscal 2019, appropriators provided a $2-billion infrastructure "bonus" for VA, which was part of a $10-billion-plus overall infrastructure infusion from a bipartisan budget deal agreed to in February 2018.

That deal, however, only extended for two years, 2018 and 2019. Lawmakers haven't set overall defense and nondefense spending ceilings yet for fiscal 2020

During the House committee’s voting session, members approved an amendment from Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) to add $300 million to repair flood damages at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. That proposal was adopted on a unanimous voice vote.

The measure also has an additional $921 million for overseas DOD construction projects.

The next step for the mil con-VA bill is a House floor vote. It is the first of the major construction-related fiscal 2020 spending bills to clear committee in either house of Congress.

In the Senate, appropriators have held hearings to aid drafting of their version of the mil con-VA measure but they have held no votes yet on that legislation.