WASHINGTON – New York Democrats are livid over President Trump's declaration of a national emergency to build a wall at the border with Mexico, and their anxiousness goes beyond the possibility that a local project at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station could be endangered because of it.
Meanwhile, the two Republicans who represent parts of Western New York – Rep. Chris Collins of Clarence and Rep. Tom Reed of Corning – offered dramatically different takes on Trump's move. Collins defended it, while expressing concerns about cuts to military construction projects. Reed, however, called Trump's emergency declaration "a bad precedent" and said he wonders if Congress should rescind the ability of presidents to reprogram funds in the case of such emergencies.
Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said Trump's emergency declaration appears to be a clear violation of the Constitution – as well as a threat to a planned $14 million fitness center at the Niagara Falls base.
"Any place he decides to take this money is a violation of his constitutional limitation," Higgins said. "Congress appropriates money. He cannot, on a false premise, simply change the Constitution."
Trump declared a national emergency at the southern border last Friday after Congress refused to set aside the $5 billion he insisted on to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
"One of the things I said I have to do and I want to do is border security, because we have tremendous amounts of drugs flowing into our country, much of it coming from the southern border," said Trump, who also contended a wall is needed to keep caravans of undocumented asylum-seekers from flooding into America.
Trump administration officials have indicated they will take money from Department of Defense construction projects and shift it to the southern border to build the wall, although they have not yet said which projects will lose money.
The Democratic-controlled House Appropriations Committee then released a list of about 400 military construction projects that could lose funding. The Niagara Falls fitness center is on that list, as well as a $20 million training facility at an Air National Guard base on Long Island and $160 million in projects at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Higgins cautioned that Trump could take money for the border wall from anywhere. Army Corps of Engineers flood protection projects in Buffalo could be in danger, Higgins said.
Trump told The Buffalo News earlier this month that an emergency declaration "will not affect Buffalo at all."
Loss of the $14 million fitness center at the Niagara base would be a concern because the current gym at the base is 50 years old and doesn't meet current Air Force standards, said John Cooper, president of the Niagara Military Affairs Council.
"People look at projects like a fitness center and ask why we need that, but it's a readiness issue for the airmen," Cooper said. "They're expected to maintain a particular level of fitness to meet what could be a rigorous operations tempo" if they are called to active duty.
Cooper is by no means the only person to express concerns about Trump possibly taking money from military construction projects.
Collins, for example, joined four other Republican lawmakers earlier this month to write a letter to Trump, suggesting that he not raid the military construction budget for funds to build the wall.
When asked about the possible loss of funds at the Niagara base – which is in his district – Collins said: "I am closely monitoring the funds that the White House will use for border security, and I will fight to ensure none of the appropriated funding from the base will be used."
Nevertheless, Collins said Trump was right to declare an emergency to get the funding he wants for his border wall, given that congressional Democrats had refused to give the president the money he wanted.
“President Trump has no other alternative but to implement a state of emergency as a result of the crisis at the southern border," Collins said. "It is unfortunate that our nation’s border security has become a political football for partisan Democrats.”
Reed agreed Trump has the authority to declare an emergency and shift funds to build the wall under the National Emergencies Act of 1976. But the Southern Tier congressman questioned whether any president should have such authority, given that the Constitution gives Congress the power to set aside funds for federal operations.
"We need to rescind that authority," Reed said. "That to me would be a better approach – not challenging the president per se on this action, but challenging all the presidents, this president and the future presidents included, to not have the authority available to them to do this kind of action."
New York State Attorney General Letitia James Monday joined 15 of her counterparts from other states in suing to try to block Trump's action.
“Declaring a national emergency when one does not exist is immoral and illegal,” James said. “Diverting necessary funds from real emergencies, crime-fighting activities, and military construction projects usurps congressional power and will hurt Americans across the country."
New York's two U.S. senators, both Democrats, also offered harsh criticism of the president's move.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer eviscerated the emergency declaration.
“From West Point to Fort Drum to Niagara Falls Air Base, I will fight like a junk yard dog to protect the vital pending projects at New York’s military-related facilities from being raided to pay for an ineffective and expensive project that has already been plainly rejected by Congress," Schumer said. "Defense spending is for national defense, not phony national emergencies."
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand – a Democratic presidential candidate – took to Twitter to criticize both Trump's emergency declaration and his administration's former policy of separating parents and children when they cross the southern border seeking asylum in America.
"Let's be clear on this: The only emergency at our border is the humanitarian one Trump created himself, by demonizing and ripping apart families," Gillibrand said. "This manufactured crisis is racist, wasteful, and an outrageous abuse of power from someone too reckless and hateful to hold it."