WASHINGTON — The Trump administration defended including nearly $2 billion to build a new FBI headquarters in the Republican proposal for more coronavirus relief Tuesday, with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows calling it a "pressing need."
But Senate Republicans, many of whom have been decrying the bill's $1 trillion price tag, are objecting to the funding, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent a strong signal that he would like it stripped out of the bill.
"I would hope that all non-COVID related measures are out no matter what bills they were in at the start," McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Tuesday.
Senators and aides said the funding for a new FBI headquarters was added at the insistence of the administration, causing some Republicans to publicly break with the president.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close ally of the president's, said including the funding "makes no sense to me." Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said, "I don't think it should be in the bill."
The funding surprised most Republicans, including McConnell, who was caught off guard when a reporter asked him about it. It's another flashpoint in the difficult negotiations McConnell has had with the administration on legislation to provide another round of economic relief during the pandemic.
A new FBI headquarters has been in the works for more than a decade, with plans to move it from its downtown Washington location to a yet-to-be determined site in the suburbs of Maryland or Virginia. President Donald Trump has taken an interest in preserving the current site, which is just a few blocks from one of his properties, Trump International Hotel.
The plans to move the headquarters were abruptly scuttled, but an inspector general's report found that top officials at the General Services Administration — which oversaw the selection of the new headquarters — had met with the president multiple times and that they had misrepresented the cost of rebuilding on the current FBI site and misled Congress about the project.
Critics say the president was concerned that an abandoned FBI building at the current location could become a commercial venture and compete with his hotel.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said: "My guess is that this is a personal issue for the president of the United States. I think it has as much to do with the fact that his hotel is on Pennsylvania Avenue as it does with the FBI itself."
Trump said last week that the current site "is better."
"So I've been encouraging them to build it," he added.
Congress has supported the move to a suburban campus on a bipartisan basis, pointing to security requirements.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the headquarters move, supports a suburban campus and said he "didn't expect seeing it" in the bill.
"I'd rather this go through the regular appropriations process," he said.
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The funding proposal undercuts Republicans' arguments against unnecessary spending. Fiscal hawks have emerged in this round of the relief, presenting a challenge to McConnell, who is working to balance the demands of the administration, Democrats and conservatives in his party who oppose another round of federal relief.
"I mean, if somebody can explain to me how — I just don't get it. I mean, how's it tied to coronavirus?" Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said of the FBI proposal.