At a raucous political rally in Phoenix on Aug. 22, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to shut down the federal government if Congress refuses to send him a spending bill that funds the U.S.-Mexico border wall on which he staked his presidential campaign. Trump, a Republican, laid the blame on Democrats for the lack of construction money. Democrats responded, in essence, "make our day." With funding for the government running out Sept. 30, the U.S. facing a separate deadline to raise the nation’s debt limit, and Congress not due back from recess until Sept. 5, the next six weeks could get very bumpy.
1. What happened to Mexico paying for the wall?
That’s been Trump’s promise, but it’s increasingly apparent that it’s mostly political rhetoric. In July, a leaked transcript of a January phone call between Trump and Mexico’s president, Enrique Pena Nieto, showed that Trump recognized he had painted himself into a corner over the wall’s funding, as he implored Pena Nieto to stop saying publicly that Mexico won’t pay for it.
2. So what did the president just say?
“If we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall,” Trump told thousands of supporters gathered in Phoenix for his address. “One way or the other, we’re going to get that wall.”
3. Is this a new threat?
No. He also made the threat in a May 2 tweet, which came after he had just taken the border wall off the table to strike a deal with Congress to fund the U.S. for another five months.
4. What’s the status of the wall’s funding?
It’s in limbo, basically. Mexico, of course, still refuses to pay. House Republicans in July passed a spending bill that includes $1.6 billion for border-wall construction for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The Senate hasn’t taken up the measure. Earlier this year, Trump requested $1.5 billion to fund the wall as part of the final 2017 spending package, but both parties ignored the request. Trump then ordered the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to use $20 million of unspent appropriations in its account for repairs of existing fence and to hire more border-patrol personnel.
5. What are lawmakers saying?
Democrats almost uniformly oppose wall funding and made clear they’ll oppose it in the Senate, which means they could deny Republicans the 60-vote margin needed to pass the bill. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, has said “most people” don’t want a government shutdown and it’s not necessary to choose between controlling borders and forcing a closure.
6. What’s the border look like now?
It’s almost 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) long, two-thirds of which tracks the Rio Grande River. Land along the border cuts through cities and farmland, gulches and craggy mountains, and desert and wildlife preserves. Physical barriers erected before Trump took office span 653 miles of the border, mostly along the western half. The southern borders of California, Arizona and New Mexico have barriers ranging from 18-foot-tall (5.5 meters) iron fencing and corrugated metal to makeshift vehicle barriers and barbed wire.
7. What kind of wall does Trump want?
As a candidate, he promised to build an "impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall" paid for by Mexico. As president he’s softened his tone. Trump told reporters last month that the wall needed to cover only 700 to 900 miles of the 2,000-mile border "because you have a lot of natural barriers. You have mountains. You have some rivers that are violent and vicious. You have some areas that are so far away that you don’t really have people crossing."
8. What will the wall cost?
This is the great debate. It depends on how much new wall is erected and what the government’s specifications are. Trump has put the construction cost at $8 billion to $12 billion, while Republican lawmakers say they expect it to require $12 billion to $15 billion. Those figures, however, don’t specify how many miles of wall would be built. Democratic lawmakers peg the cost of an 1,800-mile wall at $67 billion, not including the cost of compensating private owners for taking their land. A study published in the MIT Technology Review said a 1,000-mile wall would cost $27 billion to $40 billion.
9. Who would pay if a shutdown happened?
Taxpayers. The 2013 government shutdown over the debt ceiling cost as much as $24 billion, a figure that considers higher debt-financing costs, loss of wages, business and tourism and other factors that harm U.S. economic growth.
10. Do Americans want the wall?
Most don’t. Various polls show that a majority oppose using their tax dollars to build the wall. Even those who live along the border oppose it. But the polls can mask partisan differences: Most Republicans support construction of a wall, while only about a third of Democrats do.
The Reference Shelf
- A Bloomberg data-visualization illustrates what the southwestern border looks like and how a wall might cover it.
- The Washington Post published White House transcripts of a late January call between Trump and the Mexican president in which they discuss the wall.
- Bloomberg BNA details the current status of talks over raising the debt limit and passing spending bills.
- QuickTake explainers on the debt limit, immigration reform, U.S. budget battles, Trump’s border-tax threat, and how Trump’s "big, beautiful wall" complicates talks to renew the North American Free Trade Agreement.