Senate Republicans walk away from FBI headquarters funding in pandemic spending bill

This story was updated at 4:19 pm Wednesday, July 29 to include comments from President Donald Trump

Despite opposition from Senate Republicans, President Donald Trump is doubling down on his administration’s inclusion of $1.8 billion in the lastest coronavirus spending bill to build a new FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“The FBI building, they’ve been trying to build a new building for many years, many, many years, and they were thinking about going very far away. But you have to be near the Justice Department, you don’t want to be too far away where you have to drive for an hour, hour-and-a-half,” Trump told reporters Wednesday.

Prior to the Trump administration, the FBI and the General Services Administration proposed constructing a new suburban campus in Maryland or Virginia.  However, GSA walked away from that plan and instead briefed Congress in 2018 on a plan to renovate the Hoover building, or demolish it and construct a new facility in its place.

“They had sites way out in Virginia, way out in Maryland, I said the best place is right where it is, it’s the best piece of property in Washington. I’m very good at real estate. So I said, we’ll build a new FBI building, let’s build a new FBI building. Either a renovation of the existing, or even better would be a new building. So we have that in the bill. It should stay. People have wanted a new FBI building now for 15 or 20 years,” Trump said.

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Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have backed away from the Trump administration’s request in the $1 trillion Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act unveiled Monday.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters Tuesday outside a Senate Republican luncheon that he doesn’t see the FBI headquarters funding “standing in the way of a deal,” but Senate Republicans remain unconvinced about the measure, which reopens long-standing questions about the administration’s insistence on keeping the bureau in downtown D.C.

However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he’s “opposed to non-germane amendments” in the HEALS Act, including spending on a new FBI headquarters.

“When we get to the end of the process, I would hope all of the non-COVID related measures are out, no matter what bills they were in,” McConnell said Tuesday.

When Senate Republican leadership released the bill Monday afternoon, McConnell said the Trump administration requested the FBI headquarters provision, but didn’t offer an explanation beyond that.

“Obviously we had to have an agreement with the administration in order to get started. They’ll have to answer the question of why they insisted on that provision,” McConnell said.

White House spokesman Judd Deere told the Associated Press Tuesday the FBI “desperately needs a new building and this measure provides critical funding for this project.” The administration’s plan, he added, would also keep the building close to the Justice Department’s headquarters.

However, other Republican senators have expressed doubts over the administration’s request for the FBI provision to be included in a spending bill aimed at addressing the economic and public health impact of the coronavirus.

“I just don’t get it. I mean, how’s it tied to the coronavirus? I never understood why you’re giving money to the Kennedy Center or the National Endowment for the Arts during a pandemic. Let’s focus on solving the problem,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said, mentioning some of the sticking points in previous rounds of emergency pandemic funding.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said he’s willing to “listen to the arguments” about including the funding in the spending bill, but told reporters he hasn’t decided yet how he plans to vote on the bill.

“I don’t think it’s the only extraneous spending in the bill … I think the focus of this bill needs to be on recovery,” Kennedy said.

The FBI headquarters request hardly makes a dent in the nearly $1 trillion in overall spending proposed, but it does renew longstanding questions about the White House’s rationale for walking away from plans to move the FBI to a consolidated campus in suburban Virginia or Maryland, which would accommodate more employees and address security concerns about the J. Edgar Hoover site.

The General Services Administration unveiled the administration’s plan in 2018, walking away from a plan under the Obama administration to move the FBI headquarters to a suburban site in Maryland or Virginia.

The GSA inspector general found the administration’s plan to demolish and rebuild on the site of the J. Edgar Hoover building would cost more than the cash-and-land deal the agency had pursued for more than a decade. Under that deal, GSA would have awarded the J. Edgar Hoover site to a developer as part of the payment for constructing the new suburban FBI headquarters.

The plan asks for $3.3 billion to demolish the J. Edgar Hoover building and construct a new headquarters in its place. Accounting for previously appropriated funds, the GSA IG found the administration needs more than $2 billion to move forward with the project.

However, the IG also found the administration didn’t include the costs of permanently relocating more than 2,300 FBI employees to agency facilities in Alabama, Idaho, Virginia and West Virginia into its demolish-and-rebuild plan.

The Justice Department inspector general also announced a probe into the FBI headquarters decision last year, but the IG office has yet to release its report.

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Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who had led efforts to block funding for the project in annual spending bills, said the administration’s plan to keep the FBI in D.C. doesn’t address the operational and security needs of the bureau.

“The Congress has received little to no rationale for the administration’s reversal of previous plans. Nor has the administration presented a detailed plan on how they would like to move forward. It’s outrageous that the president would now attempt to exploit the next emergency COVID-19 bill in order to build on the FBI’s current, inadequate site, near Trump Hotel,” Van Hollen said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also expressed concern for the “unrelated White House demand” in the spending bill focused on emergency pandemic spending.

“For years, Congress has been told by previous administrations that the FBI needs a new, fully consolidated headquarters. Once again, it appears that the president is serving his interests, not the interests of the American people,” Hoyer said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Government Operations subcommittee, echoed those concerns and hinted at longstanding concerns that the administration has insisted on keeping the FBI in D.C. to protect the business interests of the nearby Trump Hotel.

“More than 150,000 Americans have died from coronavirus, millions are unemployed, state and local governments are struggling to stay afloat, and Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump are more concerned about protecting Trump Hotel. That is shameful,” Connolly said.