WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to be caught off guard by a $1.75 billion provision to rebuild the FBI headquarters in downtown Washington that the White House inserted into the Kentucky Republican's own coronavirus relief bill he unveiled Monday.
"This was an administration request, but (McConnell) believes this should not have been included in the HEALS Act," a Senate source with knowledge of the legislative negotiations told USA TODAY on Tuesday on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.
While McConnell distanced himself from the FBI funding, he stopped short of saying he would try to remove the line item from the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability protection, and Schools Act, or HEALS Act.
"I am opposed to non-germane amendments, whether it's funding for the FBI building or for example in the House bill whether it's a tax cut for high income earners in blue states or other non-germane amendments like marijuana studies or aid to illegal immigrants," he told reporters Tuesday.
The roughly $1 trillion measure would be the fifth stimulus bill Congress has taken up since the COVID-19 pandemic that has infected more than 4 million Americans, killed more than 150,000 and wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy. Democrats in the House have passed a much larger relief bill, known as the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or HEROES Act.
The FBI headquarters, named after former Director J. Edgar Hoover, has been in a state of disrepair for years and its future has been steeped in controversy.
Previous administrations have endorsed relocating to the Maryland or Virginia suburbs after government reports indicated it would be much more expensive and inefficient to rebuild on the same lot, a parcel of prime real estate only a few blocks from the White House.
Trump has been a proponent of rebuilding on the current site. Shortly after he took office in 2017, the Trump administration canceled a site in Maryland that was supposed to be a potential site for the relocation.
"There’s nothing better than the (current) site," Trump told reporters last week. "I’ve been encouraging them to build it. ... I know they're talking about it, whether or not they put it in (the HEALS Act) or someplace else. But the FBI needs a new building, and we’ll get it done."
Asked about the FBI building funding Monday, McConnell initially said he didn't think it was in there. When a reporter quoted him the text of the provision, McConnell said "you'll have to ask" the White House about the request.
The confusion represented a rare admission for McConnell, whose supporters regularly tout him as a master of the Senate who little gets by as majority leader.
The bill was already under attack from senators in his own party when news of the FBI building funding came out.
"That makes no sense to me," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters Tuesday, adding he'd be "fine" stripping out the money.
Other Republicans, including Richard Shelby of Alabama, Mike Braun of Indiana and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, said they were surprised to find the item included.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that a new headquarters is a "pressing need." While he defended its inclusion, Meadows said it won't be an obstacle to passage of another relief bill.
"There are a number of things in the last bill that had nothing to do with the coronavirus," he said. "I think everybody acknowledges that it's a funding mechanism. And I don't see it standing in the way of us getting a deal.”
Democrats were incensed that the GOP bill included nearly $2 billion for the FBI headquarters while leaving out aid for other priorities, such as expanded food stamps.
Democrats have accused the president of seeking to protect his own private interests by pushing for the rebuilding the FBI headquarters on the current site. If the government were to give up the downtown site, it could be purchased by a hospitality company that might compete with the nearby Trump International Hotel.
"They managed to have enough money for two billion dollars for the FBI headquarters that benefits Trump Hotel, and they say they have no money for food assistance," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Monday. "What the heck is going on?"
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: White House sought funds for FBI building in GOP stimulus bill