• The Star Staff

‘I just don’t get it’: Republicans balk at funding FBI building in virus bill

By Katie Rogers and Emily Cochrane

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader, looked startled Monday when first asked why Republicans had agreed to a White House demand that $1.75 billion for a new FBI building be tucked into their emergency coronavirus relief bill.

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, framed the item as a Trump administration priority, not a Republican one. Other Republicans were more blunt.

“I don’t know — that makes no sense to me” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close ally of President Donald Trump’s. “I’d be fine, OK, with stripping it out.”

By Tuesday afternoon, another chapter in Trump’s long, strange and, to his critics, ethically questionable odyssey to personally shape the future of the J. Edgar Hoover Building seemed headed to a close as Republicans distanced themselves from key elements of their own coronavirus relief bill.

Senate leaders went so far as to say they hoped the administration’s bid to fund the construction of a new FBI building would ultimately be discarded from a final agreement, with McConnell backing away from the idea, calling that provision, along with some others proposed by Democrats, “non-germane.”

It was the latest evidence of the disarray around attempts by Republicans to come to a common position as they enter talks with Democrats on another round of federal aid to deal with the economic devastation of the pandemic.

And it highlighted how the White House and Republicans have injected unrelated priorities dear to Trump into a negotiation that was already going to be complicated and intense. Republicans are also pressing to use the package to provide more than $1 billion for the Pentagon to restore projects that Trump defunded to help pay for his wall along the southern border.

Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin continued negotiations with Democrats led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday, seeking agreement on a package that can pass both the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House and win Trump’s signature. One key component of the earlier relief package, expanded unemployment benefits, is scheduled to expire at the end of the week, adding to the urgency of the talks.

With so much at stake, Trump’s own party seemed to draw a line at the proposal for the FBI building. Shelby questioned whether it was an urgent priority at a time when Americans are struggling to weather a deadly pandemic and a recession.

“It’s needed,” Shelby said. “The question is, is it needed now?”

In recent days, Meadows had pushed the plan to replace the building, which is crumbling, out of date — and long the subject an unusual fixation for Trump, a former real estate developer.

As far back as 2013, two years before launching his candidacy, Trump expressed his interest in the property, located on Pennsylvania Avenue a block from the location of what would become the Trump International Hotel. At that time, the FBI building was the subject of a long-debated plan that would allow the demolition of the existing structure and clear the way for commercial development of that location, allowing the chosen developer to construct an FBI facility in the Washington suburbs.

An executive at his company later expressed concern that the redevelopment project could create competition for Trump’s hotel. After Trump took office, his administration blocked a plan to move the building to a suburban campus, then unveiled another that would keep the building where it is, raising questions about whether he was seeking to protect his hotel from the possibility of a rival being built on the site.

His actions triggered an ongoing inquiry by the Justice Department’s inspector general and brought scrutiny by Democrats on Capitol Hill.

When asked last week why the provision was holding up negotiations among Republicans, Trump told reporters that he wanted to keep the building close to the Justice Department across the street.

“You can renovate the existing building, but it’s not a good building,” Trump said. “Or you could take it down and build a great building for the FBI for 100 years and have it be incredible.”

A senior administration official familiar with the White House’s negotiation strategy said Tuesday that Meadows and Mnuchin were treating the building provision as a potential bargaining chip to use later in negotiations with Democrats. Senate Republicans want to hold the package to around $1 trillion, while the Democrats are pushing a $3 trillion bill that would extend the $600 weekly enhanced jobless payments through the end of the year, send $1 trillion to struggling state and local governments, and provide $3.6 billion for election assistance.

It is unclear how much leverage such a universally unpopular proposal would have provided Republicans, who are seeking to counter the Democratic plan by slashing the extra unemployment payments and have omitted funding for state and local governments as well as money to help states carry out the general election amid the pandemic. Both proposals would send another round of $1,200 direct payments to many Americans.

An official familiar with the negotiations said that Republican senators, mindful that it had already taken days to reach consensus among themselves on an opening bid, ultimately stopped resisting the administration’s insistence on including the FBI provision in order to move on to what are expected to be much more fraught negotiations with Democrats, who have been publicly united behind their proposal since May.

A chorus of Republican lawmakers said they were bemused by the demand for the FBI building, particularly given the amount of energy that they had spent hammering Democrats for including items they deemed unrelated to the coronavirus in their opening offer.

“I just don’t get it — how is it tied to coronavirus?” said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. “I never understood why you’re giving money to the Kennedy Center or National Endowment for the Arts. During a pandemic, let’s focus on solving the problem.”

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., was also left bewildered.

“Even if the White House wanted it, I’d be against it because that’s certainly not necessary,” Braun told reporters.

For some Republicans, it was just another aspect of a proposal they regarded as deeply flawed.

“I’m not inclined to support it now — it’s a mess,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said of his party’s plan. “I can’t figure out what this bill is about. I don’t know what we’re trying to accomplish with it.”

After meeting with Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, Meadows and Mnuchin for a second consecutive day Tuesday afternoon, Pelosi said they were “airing our differences. There’s discovery of where there might be opportunity or not.”

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