A mariachi from Mexico performs at the midpoint of the City of Eagle Pass International Bridge No. 1 in Texas in a ceremony dedicated to building bridges on the border. (Reshma Kirpalani/Austin American-Statesman/TNS)
It’s an open secret on Capitol Hill: President Trump wants a “big, beautiful” border wall, but few in Congress are willing to pay for it.
The standoff, between the White House and lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — has escalated tensions toward a possible government shutdown at midnight Friday as Congress races to meet a deadline to fund federal offices and operations.
Cooler heads will likely prevail. Talks are underway for a stopgap measure to keep the government running for another week or so while negotiations continue.
But the stalemate over Trump’s signature campaign promise — that he would build a wall along the border to deter illegal immigration and that Mexico would pay for it — remains a political divide.
It’s not that Trump’s Republican allies in Congress, who are the majority, don’t support the notions underpinning a border wall. Most of them do.
They just disagree with Trump’s approach for a physical barrier when other deterrents may prove more effective at stopping illegal crossings. And they don’t view the huge expenditure – as much as $70 billion by the latest estimate — a top priority right now.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, has called the wall a “metaphor” for border security – saying it’s one tool, among many, to protect the nearly 2,000-mile frontier.
Border state Republican Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) recently asked Homeland Security for more information about the wall project, saying they have “a number of questions.”
“Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border,” Hurd, a former CIA officer whose district includes 800 miles along the border, more than any other lawmaker, said earlier this year. “There is no question that we must secure our border, but we need an intelligence-led approach.”
And the most conservative Republicans in the House and Senate — namely deficit hawks — oppose any new federal spending, even on national security, which has long been a GOP priority, unless it is offset with budget cuts elsewhere.
“People are pretty clear-eyed,” said one Republican aide on Capitol Hill, granted anonymity to discuss the situation. “It’s an all-of-the-above solution, not necessarily a bricks-and-mortar wall from Brownsville (Texas) to San Diego.”
For Democrats, the wall is a nonstarter in budget talks, and an expenditure they would largely support in a broader immigration overhaul to provide deportation relief for up to 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
That leaves Trump issuing an ultimatum for the wall that Congress may simply choose to ignore as talks continue toward a deal.
“Instead of risking government shutdown by shoving this wall down Congress’ and American peoples’ throats, the president ought to just let us come to an agreement,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on a conference call Monday with Democratic leaders.
“We’re happy to debate this wall in regular order down the road once he has a plan,” Schumer said, referring to Trump. “There’s no plan now, [he] just says build it.”
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Congress had been heading toward Friday’s deadline hoping to bypass the kind of shutdown drama that has bedeviled Republicans since they took the majority in the House and Senate.
Republicans have been trying to accomplish other priorities — healthcare overhaul, tax reform – and don’t want to get mired in a budget battle.
Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) believe they have leverage over Republicans in budget talks because of the dissent within the GOP over how much to spend on government operations. Republicans almost always need to rely on Democratic votes to pass funding bills and avert shutdowns, and talks were underway to achieve a deal.
Trump had made a request last month for supplemental spending — $34 billion extra for the military, plus $5 billion for the border wall and officers. But it largely landed with a thud on Capitol Hill.
Democrats panned beefing up defense expenditures without funding for other domestic needs, and the most conservative Republicans largely opposed any extra spending that wasn’t offset by cuts elsewhere.
Instead, bipartisan leaders were aiming for deal that would give both defense and nondefense accounts a smaller, but equal, boost for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
On a weekend conference call with lawmakers, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told them the priority would be dispatching with the funding bill, according to someone familiar with the remarks.
Trump, however, apparently sensed his own leverage and started demanding that Congress agree to tack on $5 billion for the border wall.
“The Wall is a very important tool in stopping drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth (and many others)!” the president tweeted Monday morning as lawmakers returned to Washington after a two-week break. “Eventually, but at a later date so we can get started early, Mexico will be paying, in some form, for the badly needed border wall.”
The administration is approaching its 100-day mark on Saturday, and showing progress on the border wall – perhaps Trump’s most heavily repeated campaign promise — would be a notable accomplishment for an otherwise slim record of legislative success.
To sweeten the deal for Democrats, the White House has proposed a $1-for-$1 swap for healthcare funds to ensure lower-income Americans don’t lose their subsidies to help pay for insurance costs through the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
But that offer put the president’s Republican allies in the uncomfortable position of fighting for the border wall they only mildly want — and they doubt Mexico will ever pay for — while agreeing to prop up the Affordable Care Act that is a priority for Democrats.