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story.lead_photo.caption Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan (center), testifies Thursday in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing along with Gen. Joseph Dunford (left), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and David Norquist, chief financial officer for the Defense Department.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan defended President Donald Trump's efforts to divert military construction funding to build his wall along the Mexican border, as a top Democrat faulted the Pentagon's "casual approach" to the move.

"Military construction on the border will not come at the expense of our people, our readiness, or our modernization," Shanahan told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday as he presented Trump's proposed $750 billion national security budget proposal for fiscal 2020.

He spoke hours before the Senate passed a resolution disapproving of Trump's declaration of a national emergency to justify the border funding.

Shanahan said the Defense Department's proposed budget includes $3.6 billion for military construction funds to make up for money that Trump plans to shift to the border this year and an additional $3.6 billion "in case additional emergency funding is needed for the border."

But he acknowledged that the Defense Department hasn't yet determined what diversions of funds are justified by their "military utility." He said only that no projects in the current year would be canceled, without commenting on which would be postponed.

"This appears to be a pretty casual approach to the issue," Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the panel's top Democrat, told him.

Shanahan was deputy defense secretary under James Mattis and has been acting secretary since Mattis quit in December over Trump's abrupt decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.

Shanahan, a former Boeing Co. executive, has drawn praise from Trump but no commitment yet to nominate him as the next defense secretary.

On the issue of overseas bases, Shanahan said in response to a question that "we won't do Cost Plus 50." Under White House direction, the administration has been drawing up demands that countries hosting U.S. troops pay the full price of American soldiers deployed on their soil -- plus 50 percent or more, according to a dozen administration officials and people briefed on the matter. Shanahan said allies should simply pay a fair share of defense costs. "We're not going to run a business, we're not going to run a charity," he said.

On foreign policy matters, Shanahan said the U.S.-led coalition in Syria has "liberated virtually all of the territory" that Islamic State militants held but that some American troops need to remain to prevent a resurgence. Trump has agreed to keep about 400 U.S. troops in Syria after announcing in December that he would pull out all 2,000 of them.

The Pentagon's proposal to pump up a war-funding account to $165 billion was also raised at the hearing. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said that's "a big patch" to sidestep statutory budget caps.

There are "a lot of people on Capitol Hill who are not going to like it," but the alternative of failing to pass a defense policy bill and funding the military through a stopgap "continuing resolution" would be worse, he said.

But Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who's running for president, called the increase in the Overseas Contingency Operations account a "slush fund" to "fund activities that have nothing to do with" its war-fighting purpose.

Information for this article was contributed by Roxana Tiron of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 03/15/2019

Print Headline: Top defense official defends wall

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