Senate GOP Accused of Using Coronavirus Bill to Indirectly Fund Border Wall

A $1 trillion coronavirus relief package proposed by Senate Republicans on Monday is facing scrutiny over a plan to dedicate billions of dollars to defense spending.

In an eviscerating condemnation of the HEALS Act, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) questioned why the bill would include "billions of dollars for programs unrelated to the coronavirus."

"In just a few days, rent is due. Moratoriums on evictions are expiring across the country, stimulus checks have long been spent, and expanded unemployment benefits are about to run out, but there is no lifeline to the American people in this bill," Leahy said in a statement published on his website.

The senator noted that while the measure includes "another one-time payment to certain individuals," similar to payments provided through the CARES Act passed in March, he said it also "slashes the unemployment benefits millions in this country rely on and it fails to provide the type of rental and mortgage assistance this country needs."

"Advocates have warned of an August 'tidal wave of evictions,' and this only encourages the coming flood," Leahy said.

He added: "If all of this were not bad enough, the bill contains billions of dollars for programs unrelated to the coronavirus, including over $8 billion for what appears to be a wish-list from the Department of Defense for manufacturing of planes, ships, and other weapons systems, as well as $1.75 billion to build a new FBI Headquarters.

"What does this have to do with the immediate crisis? The bill provides nothing to address the long lines at foodbanks and shortchanges education and childcare, but we can shore up the defense industry? I am at a loss for words," Leahy said.

Some of the proposed defense spending appears to be earmarked for projects that were shelved so money could be diverted to the construction of President Donald Trump's U.S.-Mexico border wall, prompting accusations that coronavirus relief money is effectively being used to allow the president's border wall to be built.

After Politico defense reporter Connor O'Brien pointed out on Twitter that some of the defense money appeared to be earmarked for "an unusual [$8 billion] procurement/acquisition effort," including money for shipbuilding, Navy P-8 planes and F-35s Military.com journalist Oriana Pawlyk questioned the spending, writing: that some of the items covered "were shelved because of [money] diverted to the wall effort."

Pawlyk pointed to past coverage of plans for Congress to cut back programs, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, last year after funds were pulled from military construction projects in order to fund the U.S.-Mexico border wall's development.

"In other words," MSNBC's Chris Hayes weighed in, Senate Republicans appeared to be "using the COVID rescue package to fund the wall.

Newsweek has contacted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) office for comment on the accusation.

Speaking from the Senate floor on Monday, McConnell championed the HEALS Act, saying: "The American people need more help. They need it to be comprehensive."

Like the CARES Act, the proposed HEALS Act would offer a stimulus check to most Americans.

Under the proposal, American adults could receive $1,200 if they are a single tax filer with a gross income below $75,000, a head of a household earning less than $112,500, or a couple with less than $150,000 in income.

Americans with larger incomes would see their payments shrink, while those looking after children and adult dependents would get an extra $500 for each person in their care.

Still, critics have said that the new relief package fails to do enough for U.S. residents, with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) saying the proposal falls "woefully short" of what's needed "to protect our health or the future of our country."

"Congress must move swiftly to address the critical civil liberties and civil rights challenges triggered and exacerbated by the pandemic—but this is not the right path forward," said Ronald Newman, the national political director of the ACLU, in a statement shared with Newsweek.

"While the Senate did propose much-needed funding to address COVID-19, millions of people may still be left without access to testing and treatment by this patchwork solution," Newman said. "The final package must ensure universal access to testing and treatment through emergency Medicaid. Until all of us are covered, all of us are at risk."

Newman also raised the fact that as the federal election approaches, Americans across the country have still not been assured that they will be able to mail in their ballots safely amid the pandemic.

"We are also just 99 days from Election Day, yet many voters across the nation do not have safe, secure access to the ballot," Newman said. "During primary elections this spring and summer, we witnessed the perils that will befall voters in November if Congress does not step up and provide a basic roadmap for ensuring voters can cast their ballots without being forced to risk their health in the process."

While Newman did not touch on defense spending in the measure, the ACLU did outline a few steps that the organization said would make the HEALS Act stronger.

Among those recommendations were calls for Congress to mandate and provide funding for "no-excuse absentee mail-in voting and early voting," extend a federal moratorium on evictions, provide money for emergency rental assistance, and provide access to coronavirus testing and treatment, regardless of immigration status.

"These actions will save lives; prevent mass evictions, homelessness, and broader economic devastation; and allow people to exercise their right to vote without sacrificing their health," the ACLU said.

Border wall
President Donald Trump participates in a ceremony commemorating the 200th mile of border wall at the international border with Mexico in San Luis, Arizona, June 23, 2020. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty