The emerging proposal would rely on a law signed by George W. Bush and potentially spark a government funding showdown with Democrats.
House Republicans and Donald Trump’s team are coalescing around a multi-billion dollar plan to make good on the president-elect’s campaign vows to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, according to top Republican lawmakers and aides.
Republican leaders, in tandem with Trump’s transition staff, are considering using a 2006 law signed by former President George W. Bush that authorized the construction of 700 miles-plus of “physical barrier” on the southern border. The law was never fully implemented and did not include a sunset provision, allowing Trump to pick up where Bush left off — with the help of new money from Congress.
Yet the plan could potentially provoke a showdown with Democrats over government funding. Republicans are considering whether to tuck the border wall funding into a must-pass spending bill that must be enacted by the end of April. GOP lawmakers and aides believe they could win a public relations war over the matter by daring Democrats — particularly vulnerable red-state senators up for reelection next year — to shutter the government over one of Trump’s most popular campaign pledges.
Bolstering their cause is a long list of Senate Democrats who voted for the border measure a decade ago, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — making it harder for Democrats to say no now, Republicans believe.
“There’s already in existing law the authorization for hundreds of miles of build out on the southern border … so, one important step in the right direction will be funding the existing law and beginning the building out of hundreds of miles of wall, or fence, on the southern border,” said House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Luke Messer (Ind.).
The Indiana Republican added: “If tied to the rest of government funding, it’s much harder for the Democrats to stop, and by the way, I think it’s much harder for Democrats to vote against it if what you’re doing is authorizing funding for an existing law.”
The plan is an implicit acknowledgment by Republicans and the incoming administration that Mexico will not pay for the border wall — a promise from Trump that was always viewed skeptically. Instead, American tax dollars will.
The tentative plan would likely be just a piece of a broader, multiyear border security strategy, which Capitol Hill Republicans are still hashing out. They’re already framing the spring cash infusion — which could total hundreds of millions, or perhaps billions, of dollars — as a “down payment” on Trump’s “build-the-wall” platform. That pledge vaulted the New Yorker from afterthought to front-runner in last year’s crowded GOP presidential primary.
Multiple Republican sources said the House will also likely pass a border-security package sometime later in the spring or summer. The plan could meld new provisions to older bills passed by the House and the Homeland Security Committee in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
The cost of a border wall is potentially enormous, with estimates ranging from a few billion dollars to $14 billion. And that’s just for constructing the wall or fence; it does not include a range of other expenses, from maintenance to border patrol agents to purchasing private property from Texas landowners.
Still, House Republicans feel they need to give Trump the tools he needs to carry out his wall promise as quickly as possible. The proposal under discussion could offer a way to produce legislation within his first 100 days in office.
“I think the sooner Republicans can get it done the better because [Trump] made such an issue out of it,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the former chairman of the Homeland Security Committee who offered the 2006 bill currently under consideration.
The 2006 Secure Fence Act, included as part of a broader immigration reform package, originally called for 850 miles of double fencing along the nearly 2,000-mile southern border. Lawmakers amended the law in 2008 to reduce the length to a minimum of 700 miles, a change that also gave the secretary of Homeland Security discretion over what kind of “physical barrier” to construct.
Ultimately, only 36 miles of double-layer fencing was erected. U.S. Customs and Border Protection built roughly 350 miles of single-layer pedestrian fences, most which stand about 18 feet, and 300 miles of low-level vehicle barriers that any person could easily walk through, according to sources following the matter.
Facing heavy complains from the Mexican government and immigrant groups, the Bush and Obama administrations pushed for a “virtual fence” on much of the border area using towers and surveillance sensors to provide security. They argued that it was a much more cost-effective approach for the physically challenging terrain. More than $3 billion was spent on the project over time. Homeland Security froze the “virtual fence” project in 2010.
Because the 2006 law included a floor on fencing miles, not a ceiling, and since it also allows the Department of Homeland Security to determine what kinds of structures to build, Capitol Hill Republicans believe Trump already has all the authority he needs to start construction of a wall.
All they have to do is fund it.
One of their biggest challenges in doing so will be Senate Democrats. To clear the upper chamber’s 60-vote legislative threshold, Republicans will need eight Democrats to back the measure.
GOP insiders plan to pressure Democrats who voted for the original law to get in line with their plan. Schumer and Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Tom Carper of Delaware all voted for the legislation a decade ago. So, too, did then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
But the dynamics on immigration and border security have shifted dramatically since then. Democrats nowadays want comprehensive immigration reform to accompany any fortifications of the border. That sweeping approach would include a pathway to citizenship, which is extremely unlikely to happen under Trump.
It’s one of the reasons Republicans may slip the funding into must-pass spending legislation. The government is currently operating on a stopgap “continuing resolution,” which expires at the end of April, so they’ll have to fund the government for the rest of the year by then.
Other wall funding vehicles being considered include the 2018 appropriations bill for Homeland Security and a standalone legislative package. There are legislative hurdles to both those approaches as well.
Republicans could also run into roadblocks within their own party. For one, the price tag could be a major issue with the far right. A new, yet-to-be-released Government Accountability Office study estimates the cost of a single layer fence at $6.5 million per mile, or $10.4 million per mile for a double-layer fence.
Insiders say Customs and Border Protection, at the request of the incoming Trump administration, has identified about 400 miles on the U.S.-Mexico border where structures could be erected or need to be fortified. Should Trump line that with double-layer fencing, for example, the cost would be about $4.2 billion.
Conservatives are bound to demand any such cost be offset, another potential hurdle. Republicans could also face an uphill battle with Republicans from border towns, whose constituents would likely grumble at construction projects running through their backyards. There are also eminent domain wrinkles to iron out, as the government will have to purchase land from Texans to construct the project.