GOP Leaders Embrace Trump’s Border Wall But Split on Details

  • McConnell, Ryan say Congress could spend up to $15 billion
  • Many Republicans still dispute best approach at Mexico border

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Republican leaders are finally climbing on board President Donald Trump’s plan for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border -- and they say they’re ready to spend as much as $15 billion to build it.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both suggested Thursday that, after months of studiously ignoring the border wall proposal, they’re now ready to act on the wall as part of a spending request they expect from Trump that would help jump-start construction.

“Now, we’re going to actually deploy this fence,” Ryan told reporters at a joint GOP retreat in Philadelphia.

It’s still not clear what the wall will look like, how it will be financed, exactly how much it will cost, or how long it would take to build. 

But Congress doesn’t need to pass new legislation to at least get started on Trump’s idea, leaders say, because the U.S. government never completed 700 miles of “physical barrier” at the border that was required by a 2006 law.

"The point is, we’re going to finance the Secure Fence Act, which is the construction of a physical barrier on the border," Ryan said.

McConnell said he doesn’t have any advice for Trump on how to get Mexico to ultimately pay for the wall, but said Congress was prepared to act on the roughly "$12 billion to $15 billion" they expect to be requested for border security. His spokesman, David Popp, said later in an e-mail that McConnell was referring to publicly available estimates for the cost.

"We intend to address the wall issue ourselves and the president can deal with his relations with other countries on that issue and other issues," McConnell said.

Trump’s Feud

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Thursday canceled a planned meeting with Trump after the U.S. president taunted him on Twitter over paying for the wall.

But even as Republican leaders avoided wading into that feud, their views on Trump’s wall have evolved significantly since the presidential campaign.

All last year, party leaders deflected talk of the wall, saying that they supported improved border security through a mix of fencing, more U.S. Border Patrol agents and other approaches. But an actual wall has been a key campaign promise of Trump’s and he has continued to push it, directing agencies on Wednesday to ready plans to build it.

Even so, there’s also no agreement on whether lawmakers will try to find offsetting spending cuts or fee hikes.

"As far as the offsets, we’re going to wait and see from the administration what their supplemental looks like," said Ryan.

‘Several Options’

White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Thursday that the administration still wants Mexico to finance the costs eventually, and said one possibility is a 20 percent tax on imports from Mexico. He said that could raise $10 billion a year and could “easily pay for the wall.”

One thing that’s clear: The potential cost is moving higher than what Republican lawmakers have been weighing in the last couple of years, as the new president has pushed the border to the top of the policy agenda.

House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, in 2015 proposed legislation designed to achieve operational control of the Southwest border in five years. That bill, which would have authorized $10 billion over a decade to meet various security goals, didn’t envision a wall, but included various approaches like fencing, new technologies and more border agents.

McCaul said in an interview Wednesday that he expects an initial emergency supplemental spending bill to trigger stronger border protections, followed by an authorization bill that his panel will craft in the spring. He estimates that second bill will allow for about $15 billion to enhance border protections -- 50 percent higher than his earlier proposal.

‘Least Effective Way’

Some Republicans already are balking, calling a fortified wall a wasteful idea.

“Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border,” said Republican Representative Will Hurd, a former CIA officer whose Texas district includes more than 800 miles of the border. “Each section of the border faces unique geographical, cultural and technological challenges that would be best addressed with a flexible, sector-by-sector approach that empowers agents on the ground with the resources they need.”

What’s more, key Republican lawmakers in the debate haven’t been in agreement with Trump -- or even each other -- about security approaches and costs.

McCaul has favored a sector-by-sector approach that gives some flexibility for methods to bolster security. He said Wednesday that a wall isn’t feasible everywhere -- most notably in portions where the physical border is the Rio Grande River -- and that Trump will need to work with Congress and also get legislative approval for a physical wall that isn’t embedded in current law.

“Unlike a CEO, he’ll have to go through Congress,” McCaul said at a breakfast sponsored by Bloomberg Government.

Steel Fence

Another top lawmaker in the debate, Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson, said last month he favors a steel fence barrier, similar to the nearly 160 miles of fencing that separates Israel from the Sinai. Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, estimates that type of fence could cost about $4 billion, and said he also favors authorizing other border-security needs beyond that.

Johnson said he wants to let Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly weigh in on specifics of any plan. Kelly was confirmed by the Senate for his new job on Jan. 20.

The willingness of Republicans -- and many Democrats -- to spend heavily to strengthen the border -- was apparent in 2013. That’s the last time either chamber took a vote on border security legislation.

The Senate, then controlled by Democrats, voted to create a path to legal status for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and spend $46 billion to secure the Mexican border. The added spending helped secure more Republican backing for the Senate bill, although the Republican-controlled House didn’t take up the bill, as most in the GOP opposed legal status.

The existing fencing law, signed by President George W. Bush, requires the Department of Homeland Security to build reinforced fencing along at least 700 miles of the border, although there’s no deadline and the specific location, height or form of the fence isn’t mandated.

The agency reported in October 2014 that it had constructed about 353 miles of fencing to keep out pedestrians and 299 miles of fencing to keep out vehicles. Late last year, the Congressional Research Service said the agency still needed to construct almost 50 miles of fencing to meet the 700-mile requirement.

Trump’s presidential transition team seized on the law as a method of getting started on his campaign pledge without having to go through Congress for fresh authority.

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