De­spite cost, GOP ready to fund wall

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MIKE DEBO­NIS

Repub­li­cans on Capi­tol Hill say they don’t need to wait for Mex­ico to make good on Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s cen­tral cam­paign prom­ise: build­ing a south­ern bor­der wall.

In fact, they are happy to un­der­write the wall them­selves, at a po­ten­tial cost of many bil­lions of dol­lars.

The GOP’s will­ing­ness to fund Trump’s bor­der wall with tax­payer money could put the party’s deeply held de­sire to rein in gov­ern­ment spend­ing in con­flict with its long-stand­ing goal of cracking down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion and tough­en­ing bor­der se­cu­rity. Nonethe­less, many Repub­li­cans do not see an in­her­ent con­flict.

“It would be a pro­posal that would cost bil­lions of dol­lars to get done, but if it’s an ap­pro­pri­ate pri­or­ity for our coun­try, it’s worth spend­ing that kind of money,” said Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.), chair­man of the House Repub­li­can Pol­icy Com­mit­tee.

There is no re­li­able price tag on build­ing a bor­der wall, but Trump has es­ti­mated the cost at $8 bil­lion. Re­cent con­gres­sional leg­is­la­tion pegged the num­ber at $10 bil­lion, and con­struc­tion ex­perts say it could be more than dou­ble that.

The wall is one part of a mas­sive spend­ing strat­egy at the core of Trump’s pop­ulist agenda.

Trump has not pro­vided ex­ten­sive de­tails on how he plans to fol­low through on vows such as over­haul­ing the tax code, re­peal­ing and re­plac­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act, and ex­e­cut­ing a sprawl­ing in­fra­struc­ture pro­gram. But each of those pro­pos­als car­ries an ex­or­bi­tant price tag, and ex­perts say that com­bined, they could add tril­lions of dol­lars to deficits.

Ex­perts at the non­par­ti­san Tax Pol­icy Cen­ter es­ti­mate that Trump’s tax pro­pos­als alone could add as much as $7.2 tril­lion to deficits in the com­ing decade. Even-more-con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mates, such as those pro­duced by the right-lean­ing Tax Foun­da­tion, con­cluded that Trump’s tax pro­pos­als would cre­ate at least a $4.4 tril­lion bud­get hole in the same time frame.

The costs of rolling back the ACA are harder to pre­dict. Re­peal­ing the en­tire law would in­crease deficits by more than $350 bil­lion over a decade, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 re­port from the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice, which serves as an in­de­pen­dent score­keeper.

If Congress plans to mimic a 2015 at­tempt at re­peal, the even­tual leg­is­la­tion could re­duce deficits by $282 bil­lion. But law­mak­ers have yet to re­veal a plan to re­place the ACA with tax breaks and ben­e­fits that could more than off­set any sav­ings.

Trump has not out­lined a de­tailed plan for in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing. But his nom­i­nee to be com­merce sec­re­tary, Wil­bur Ross, has sug­gested that the gov­ern­ment of­fer ap­prox­i­mately $140 bil­lion in tax cred­its to nudge com­pa­nies to in­vest $1 tril­lion of their own money.

Un­der Pres­i­dent Obama, Repub­li­cans de­cried new fed­eral spend­ing to stim­u­late the econ­omy, ex­pand health-care cov­er­age and pur­sue other do­mes­tic pri­or­i­ties. But so far, they seem to har­bor no sim­i­lar qualms about Trump’s plat­form.

“I think re­al­is­ti­cally we’re go­ing to have to find a way to fund this,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), an Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee mem­ber, said about the bor­der wall. He said the Trump tran­si­tion team has not di­rectly con­tacted the com­mit­tee on the is- sue.

Other Repub­li­cans re­acted with a shrug, point­ing to sup­port and even money for build­ing a wall that has al­ready been pro­vided by Congress.

“We’ve al­ready ap­pro­pri­ated money for walls,” said Sen. Charles E. Grass­ley (R-Iowa). “We’ve got walls right now.”

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a fierce op­po­nent of il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, is not wor­ried about when or how Mex­ico re­im­burses the U.S. gov­ern­ment for the mas­sive con­struc­tion pro­ject.

“If we build that wall, and Don­ald Trump hasn’t fig­ured out how to get Mex­ico to pay, I’m not go­ing to be the guy who says, ‘Let’s wait un­til we get this in pe­sos,’ ” King said.

The Trump team is com­mit­ted to mov­ing for­ward on the wall quickly and be­fore Repub­li­cans be­come un­easy about the pro­ject and its po­lit­i­cal cost, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral peo­ple close to Trump.

A na­tional exit poll of pres­i­den­tial vot­ers found that only 41 per­cent sup­ported build­ing a wall along the en­tire bor­der with Mex­ico. But among Trump sup­port­ers, three-quar­ters backed the pro­posal.

And there is plenty of skep­ti­cism that Trump will ul­ti­mately fol­low through: A CNN-ORC poll taken af­ter the elec­tion found just un­der half of all Amer­i­cans thought it was at least some­what likely that Trump would build a wall along the south­ern bor­der, while a Novem­ber Quin­nip­iac poll found just 19 per­cent of reg­is­tered vot­ers thought Trump would get Mex­ico to pay for such a wall.

Trump’s strat­egy is be­ing driven by sev­eral ad­vis­ers, in par­tic­u­lar those with po­lit­i­cal links to Sen. Jeff Ses­sions (R-Ala.), Trump’s nom­i­nee to be at­tor­ney gen­eral. They in­clude speech­writer and pol­icy aide Stephen Miller, in­com­ing deputy White House chief of staff Rick Dear­born and in­com­ing White House chief strate­gist Stephen K. Ban­non.

Ses­sions him­self, who has fo­cused on bor­der se­cu­rity for decades, also is in­ti­mately in­volved in the dis­cus­sions. Miller is al­ready draft­ing ex­ec­u­tive ac­tions re­lated to bor­der and im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, and Dear­born is work­ing with Repub­li­can lead­ers to co­or­di­nate leg­is­la­tion.

Ban­non, the peo­ple close to Trump added, is pay­ing close at­ten­tion to of­fi­cials he may be able to work with in­side the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment on the bor­der and other is­sues, with new Mex­i­can For­eign Min­is­ter Luis Vide­garay fa­mil­iar to him and other Trump aides. Vide­garay was in­volved in Trump’s trip to meet Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent En­rique Peña Ni­eto, which sparked con­tro­versy dur­ing the cam­paign.

Vice Pres­i­dent-elect Mike Pence, who once served in the House and is friendly with many Repub­li­cans still skit­tish about Trump, is con­sid­ered key to smooth­ing any ten­sions as the push to build the wall gets un­der­way.

Dur­ing the cam­paign, the wall was Trump’s sig­na­ture prom­ise and a rau­cous ral­ly­ing cry among his sup­port­ers at his large ral­lies. Trump re­peat­edly said that Mex­ico would have to pay for the gi­ant struc­ture, but he also sig­naled that U.S. tax­pay­ers would be re­im­bursed for it af­ter its con­struc­tion.

In a Fri­day-morn­ing tweet, Trump said: “The dis­hon­est me­dia does not re­port that any money spent on build­ing the Great Wall (for sake of speed), will be paid back by Mex­ico later!”

Repub­li­cans are dis­cussing re­viv­ing a 2006 law — sup­ported by the GOP and Democrats alike — that gave them au­thor­ity to con­struct par­tial fenc­ing along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mex­i­can bor­der.

The 2006 Se­cure Fence Act man­dated 700 miles of “re­in­forced fenc­ing” along the south­ern bor­der as well as en­hanced sur­veil­lance sys­tems. The full com­ple­ment of bar­ri­ers was never com­pleted, and GOP law­mak­ers think the law pro­vides suf­fi­cient au­thor­ity to pro­ceed with ad­di­tional con­struc­tion.

That would al­low Congress, with­out pass­ing new leg­is­la­tion, to start fund­ing the wall through the nor­mal bud­get ap­pro­pri­a­tions process. Cur­rent fed­eral spend­ing au­thor­ity ex­pires April 28, and Repub­li­cans could push to in­clude such fund­ing in any spend­ing leg­is­la­tion to fol­low. The plan may put Democrats in a po­lit­i­cal bind, forc­ing them to ad­vo­cate shut­ting down the gov­ern­ment if the wall is in­cluded in a must-pass spend­ing bill — mir­ror­ing a sim­i­lar po­si­tion in which Repub­li­cans fre­quently found them­selves dur­ing the Obama years.

Sev­eral high-pro­file Democrats, in­clud­ing then-Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and cur­rent Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), orig­i­nally voted for the Se­cure Fence Act.

House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dis­missed Repub­li­cans’ in­vo­ca­tion of the bi­par­ti­san 2006 law — “That’s about pol­i­tics not about pol­icy,” she said — and said fund­ing for a wall would be a “heavy sell.”

Pelosi also asked where the money would be gen­er­ated.

“What is this com­ing out of? . . . Is this com­ing out of ed­u­ca­tion? Is this com­ing out of ev­ery­thing we do on the do­mes­tic side?” she asked, while mock­ing Trump’s no­tion that Mex­ico would even­tu­ally pay for it: “Oh, yeah, re­ally?”

Some law­mak­ers have shied away from com­mit­ting to build­ing a con­tin­u­ous wall along the bor­der, and some think it could be con­structed in dif­fer­ent ways and out of a va­ri­ety of ma­te­ri­als, to in­clude fenc­ing.

“I think it could take sev­eral dif­fer­ent forms,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said Fri­day.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chair­man of the Se­nate Home­land Se­cu­rity and Gov­ern­men­tal Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, said Fri­day he had been im­pressed with a sys­tem of fences he had in­spected along the Is­raeli bor­der with Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries.

“I’m al­ways look­ing for best prac­tices,” he said. “It’s been in­cred­i­bly ef­fec­tive. They had thou­sands of il­le­gal im­mi­grants; it’s down to the teens.”

JOSE LUIS GON­ZA­LEZ/REUTERS

In an im­age shot from in­side Mex­ico, chil­dren play Nov. 18, 2016, at a newly built sec­tion of the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der fence at Sun­land Park, N.M., op­po­site the Mex­i­can city of Juarez.

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