The Trump administration is considering using billions in unspent disaster relief funds earmarked for areas including hurricane-pounded Puerto Rico and Texas and more than a dozen other states to pay for US President Donald Trump's border wall as he weighs signing a national emergency declaration to get it built without Congress.
The White House has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to comb through its budget, including $13.9bn in emergency funds that Congress earmarked last year, to see what money could be diverted to the wall as part of a declaration.
Trump threatens emergency declaration ahead of US-Mexico border visit
That's according to a congressional aide and administration official familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly.
It is the latest sign that the administration is laying the groundwork for a possible emergency order as negotiations between Trump and congressional Democrats to reopen the partially shuttered government have ground to a halt.
Trump is demanding billions for his wall that Democrats won't give him. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are set to miss pay-cheques on Friday.
Hoping for a deal
Trump on Thursday gave his strongest public indication yet that he is leaning toward an emergency declaration as he travelled to the Texas border to continue to press his case for the wall.
Trump told reporters as he left the White House that he was still holding out hope for a deal, but that if it "doesn't work out, probably I will do it. I would almost say definitely."
Todd Semonite, commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers, was traveling with Trump on Thursday. The Army Corps of Engineers directed questions to the Pentagon, which directed questions to Congress.
Nearly $14bn in emergency disaster relief funds have been allocated but not yet obligated through contracts for a variety of projects in states including California, Florida and Texas and in the US territory of Puerto Rico that have been ravaged by recent hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters, according to the aide familiar with the matter.
The money funds a variety of projects, mostly flood control to prevent future disasters.
A second official with knowledge of the proposal said it would fund construction of about 500km of border barrier. Right now, barriers blanket about one-third of the 3 145km border with Mexico.
Defense Department officials had already been combing data on more than $10bn in military construction projects to determine how much of it would be available for emergency spending this year.
Officials have estimated that roughly one-quarter to one-third of the money, or $2.5bn to $3bn, could be available - less than the $5.7bn Trump is seeking.
The majority has also already been obligated - meaning that it has been spent or a contract has been signed and there would be penalties for cancellation.
Regardless of where the money is found, an emergency declaration would draw immediate legal challenge from Democrats, who have accused Trump of trying to manufacture a crisis at the southern border to justify his wall.
Critics have said the move would be an unconstitutional abuse of emergency powers. Trump said on Thursday that his lawyers have told him he has the "absolute right".