When U.S. senators return to Washington this week after a short break, the thorny issue of border security will once again be on the agenda. But this time, with a potential government shutdown looming, an impasse might not be an option.
President Donald Trump, whose signature campaign issue has eluded him so far, has ramped up his call — in tweets, rallies and fundraisers — to shut down the government if Congress doesn’t approve significant funding for a border wall.
It is a gambit in a changing political landscape. Wall construction has been tied to changes in immigration laws, including resolving the status of young people brought to the country illegally by their parents — currently protected under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — and Republicans and Democrats have not found a deal both can accept.
The Senate will resume work Wednesday, and the U.S. House will return Sept. 4. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30, giving Congress a short time frame to find a fix.
“I know the president is frustrated by this,” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “There’s been a number of negotiations over DACA, one in which (U.S.) Sen. (Chuck) Schumer (D-N.Y.) offered $25 billion in (wall) funding for border security.”
But Democrats have backed off any more wall funding overtures because three federal judges have kept DACA alive despite Trump’s attempts to terminate it. Texas is leading several states in a lawsuit seeking to end DACA. U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, who held a hearing on the challenge Wednesday in Houston, is expected to rule soon. The issue could end up at the Supreme Court.
Republican leaders want to avoid a shutdown fight ahead of the November midterm elections. Cornyn thinks that ultimately Democrats will “cave.”
‘Gambling taxpayer money’
The House GOP has jacked up the amount of wall funding to $5 billion for 200 miles of a barrier — lawmakers don’t specify where it should go, but a large portion of it is expected to be in the Rio Grande Valley, which Customs and Border Protection has designated a priority — in the annual funding bill for Homeland Security coming up for a vote when the House returns in September.
A Senate panel has allocated only $1.6 billion for the wall, and many Democrats are primed to attack additional wall funding.
A Government Accountability Office report released last week found the border wall “will cost more than projected, take longer than planned, or not fully perform as expected.”
“The Trump administration put almost zero thought into the construction of this wall other than how it will play in the news cycle,” said U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela of Brownsville, the senior Democrat on a Homeland Security subcommittee on border security. “The GAO found that DHS is planning to spend billions of taxpayer dollars without key information about cost and effectiveness. Simply put, the White House has not done their homework; they are gambling taxpayer money while operating on incomplete information. This irresponsible waste is unacceptable and a complete disgrace.”
In response to the audit, Customs and Border Protection issued a statement that said, “CBP knows from experience that walls work. Where we have invested in wall systems, barriers, technology, infrastructure, and additional agents, there have been significant decreases in illegal border crossers and decreases in the flow of illicit drugs.”
‘A radical position’
Cornyn believes Democrats are using the wall as a bargaining chip.
“They’re really listening to their political base that wants to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement and taking a radical position with regard to border security,” Cornyn said.
Some Senate Democrats from states Trump won who are vulnerable in November — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — have already said they support more wall funding.
Trump’s strategy also appears to be a political calculation.
“The Trump coalition is basically content right now with incredible economic growth and solid judicial appointments — and they’re not enthused to vote for traditional Republicans in 2018 without Trump himself on the ballot,” former Trump campaign operative Steve Cortes told the American-Statesman. “But pushing the border issue and risking a shutdown will crystallize a major issue and galvanize that coalition to turn out and protect the GOP’s control of the House.”
The Democrats are galvanized, too, with grass-roots protests and calls to protect landowners and environmentally sensitive areas along the Rio Grande.
“I have been outspoken against President Trump’s wall because, unlike those who have championed for a giant wall between the United States and Mexico, I represent the border and actually live there,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. “I speak with constituents, landowners and law enforcement professionals regularly, and we all know that a massively expensive wall is nothing more than a 14th-century solution to a 21st-century challenge.”