WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump toured the storm-ravaged Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida on Wednesday, he vowed it would be rebuilt.
"We’ll have many more people working at Tyndall than you had before the hurricane, so get ready for that,” Trump later said at a rally a few miles from the military base.
But months after natural disasters wrought havoc on the site and several other military posts, the White House has yet to formally ask Congress for the funding, and talks have stalled between the two branches of government on a disaster aid package to address the problem.
Hundreds of millions of repair dollars are at stake for Tyndall, Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Negotiations over an aid package for those repairs have snagged on the amount of aid Puerto Rico should get, causing gridlock that is frustrating military leaders, lawmakers and residents of affected areas.
The delay has also caused a domino effect for military construction projects outside these three devastated communities stateside. As funding ran out for recovery efforts last month, the Air Force halted and moved funding from 61 critical infrastructure projects across 18 states and five overseas locations, while the Marine Corps did likewise.
Without a direct request from the White House budget office, the military has gone to Congress with its needs. The services have assessed $4.7 billion in damage at Tyndall, $3.7 billion at Lejeune and other East Coast facilities, and at least $700 million at Offutt.
Unlike the White House, Congress hasn’t waited to act. The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday passed its military construction and Department of Veterans Affairs spending bill with $300 million for Offutt rebuilding, though that bill, too, has yet to become law.
“We have to have relief for all the damage to our bases. It’s very serious,” said the panel’s top Republican, Rep. Kay Granger of Texas.
Lawmakers have reprogrammed $400 million for the Marine Corps to address its most pressing infrastructure needs, and both the GOP-led Senate Appropriations Committee and Democratic-led House Appropriations Committee drafted disaster aid packages with $1.1 billion for the Air Force and $315 million for the Marine Corps.
On Friday, the House passed its bill, a $17.2 billion package for states hit by flooding and other disasters, despite opposition from Trump, who urged Republicans to vote against it over what he saw as excessive funding for Puerto Rico. The measure passed 257-150, with 34 Republican “yes” votes.
“House Republicans should not vote for the BAD DEMOCRAT Disaster Supplemental Bill,” the President tweeted on Thursday evening. He has claimed Puerto Rico mismanaged aid in the wake of damage from Hurricane Maria in 2017.
The Senate is still hashing out its own disaster relief package. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called on the Senate earlier this week to pass its own package before the Memorial Day recess.
Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson said at a hearing Thursday that if the money doesn’t come through, the service will have to cancel some major exercises in June, stop new work at Offutt in July and cancel up to 18,000 flying hours in September.
“Today we are just now moving people out of tents at Tyndall Air Force Base from a storm that happened in early October,” Wilson said. “If you go there, it looks like a war zone. Ninety-five percent of the facilities have been damaged or destroyed. We want to bring Tyndall back as quickly as we can, and to do that we need additional disaster relief.”
The Marine Corps’ No. 2 uniformed officer, Gen. Gary Thomas, said 800 buildings were damaged at Lejeune and the conditions remain “a little expeditionary.”
“I saw a young Marine sitting at a desk, the wall was exposed to the outside air. We had an air crew doing their mission planning in the hangar, a place where they can guarantee it’s dry,” he said.
Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican on the House Armed Services Committee who once commanded Offutt and now represents an adjacent community, said floodwaters destroyed a vital simulator for the mission crew of the Boeing RC-135 spy plane, as well as intelligence exploitation equipment.
The post hosts the 55th Wing, which operates 46 aircraft, including 13 models of seven different types for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, electronic attack, and command and control — and Bacon is warning colleagues that training and readiness are in jeopardy if Congress doesn’t approve more money.
“In the past day or two, we’re getting clarity on their equipment inside the buildings and what a terrible toll — it’s not just desks,” Bacon said. “Now the Air Force is coming forward and saying we need a new mission simulator, training equipment, and we are looking at another $300-400 million (above a previous estimate of $300 million).”
Bacon was critical of both a White House move to roll $4.5 million in emergency funding for the U.S.-Mexico border into the package and of Democrats seeking block grants for Puerto Rico.
“I think it should be a straight ‘disaster relief bill’ — don’t add the border to it,” Bacon said. “Can we just keep this simple? The more we throw in — whether it’s the border or pet rocks on the Democrat side — the more we ain’t going to get that done.”
The impasse has alarmed Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who’s been struggling to triangulate between the White House and congressional Republicans and Democrats for a bill that could pass Congress. In recent days, Shelby has warned colleagues and reporters that if this deal is difficult to accomplish, a larger deal to fund the federal government and avoid sequestration budget cuts will be much tougher.
Shelby said the White House has been difficult to pin down in these talks. “If we’re not able to do this — and I hope we are — what does that say about the future and something much bigger and more complex?” he said.
Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and other Senate Democrats accused Trump of not wanting a deal and Senate Republicans of enabling him.
“I was surprised to see the president in Florida promise all this money, it’s not in his budget at all, and Republicans have blocked Democrats for voting for the money the president says he wants,” Leahy said. “I’ve never seen such an Alice in Wonderland thing, unless Republicans are blocking disaster relief to help the president’s tweets.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.