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In Appropriations Endgame, All Roads Lead to Border Wall

Dec. 7 funding deadline fast approaching

Border Patrol vehicles stand guard along the United States-Mexico border fence in on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014. The fence runs through the cities of Calexico, Calif., and Mexicali on the Mexico side. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Border Patrol vehicles stand guard along the United States-Mexico border fence in on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014. The fence runs through the cities of Calexico, Calif., and Mexicali on the Mexico side. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sooner or later, President Donald Trump will have to confront the political reality that Congress is extremely unlikely to provide the $5 billion he wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

That realization has to occur in less than a month, with the House and Senate both in session for only 12 legislative days before the current stopgap funding measure expires Dec. 7.

And the longer policymakers delay in figuring out how to handle the divisive wall project, the more likely it is Congress will have to punt the remaining seven fiscal 2019 spending bills into the new year, including the Homeland Security measure, which funds Customs and Border Protection construction accounts.

 [PODCAST: Democrat to Reshape Priorities on Spending Panel]

The dispute to some extent has to be resolved before appropriators can move forward on outstanding appropriations bills, including a four-bill package that’s been sitting in conference since September. That’s because every dollar claimed for other programs is a dollar taken away from making Trump’s $5 billion wish come true.

The Border Wall Funding Fight Could Lead to Another CR, or Partial Federal Shutdown

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There’s also the question of additional disaster aid in the wake of the latest deadly California wildfire outbreak. The Senate Appropriations Committee’s ranking member, Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., told reporters Monday his committee was preparing to add $720 million in emergency funds to a year-end spending bill. That amount could increase as other disaster needs are tallied, such as rebuilding after hurricanes Michael and Florence. 

But Trump has taken issue with California’s management of fire prevention programs, indicating that more money for wildfire suppression could also get caught up in the transactional nature of Trump’s negotiating style.

“Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!” Trump tweeted over the weekend. That’s a dicey way to start negotiations with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who’s in line to take over the speaker’s gavel next year.

In addition, partisan disputes over policy riders, dealing with matters such as protecting Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation from White House interference, are stuck in limbo given Trump’s penchant for hardball tactics.

Each bone of contention is leverage for Trump’s wall, perhaps the most visible promise he has made both during his campaign and since he’s been in office. The more Trump digs in, the more Democrats are likely to push on matters such as demanding acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s recusal from overseeing the Russia investigation.

Encouraging signs

Ultimately, the question of what happens to the remaining fiscal 2019 spending bills, and when, boils down to the following question: Can lawmakers reach a deal with the White House on some level of wall-related funding between the $5 billion in the House’s Homeland Security measure for “technology and physical barriers” and the Senate’s $1.6 billion worth of “pedestrian fencing”?

There are early indications that Trump and Hill Democrats are ready to deal. In his post-midterm press conference, Trump said he wouldn’t necessarily accept a partial shutdown if the spending bill due Dec. 7 doesn’t have the full $5 billion. “I can’t commit to that,” Trump said.

And on Monday, Leahy said his party was ready to talk more broadly about additional border security needs. “I’m willing to make some compromises provided we can get it done,” he said. But Leahy hinted that Democrats are ready to play a little “Art of the Deal” themselves if Trump makes some other concessions.

“I’d want to see where it’s being spent  . . .  I can’t speak for my whole caucus, but there are a whole lot of aspects that are involved here, not the least of which are all the poison-pill riders in the House bill,” Leahy said.

His comments echo Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who said last week he’d had “great discussions” on border security already with the other top Hill leaders of both parties. 

“I would hope that the president wouldn’t interfere and we would get something good done,” Schumer said.

Doing the math

Where the money will come from to get $5 billion, whether for the wall itself or some other border infrastructure, is anyone’s guess. And it’s part of the reason why the House held back the four-bill spending package — consisting of the fiscal 2019 Agriculture, Interior-Environment, Financial Services and Transportation-HUD measures — after Senate negotiators were ready to sign off in late September. 

The problem is that Trump has already signed into law five spending bills, which limits the money available under the discretionary caps for fiscal 2019. About 97 percent of the remainder, or $305 billion, is for nondefense programs, according to CQ calculations based on Congressional Budget Office estimates. That includes most of the Homeland Security Department, including CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The House versions of the seven remaining bills already start out at a deficit; they are $736 million over the $597 billion nondefense cap, according to the CBO. In other words, if the bills were enacted as the House has drafted them, the Office of Management and Budget within 15 days would have to order an across-the-board cut to every nonexempt program to eliminate the excess.

The four bills currently in conference hover around the $154 billion mark for both chambers’ versions. The Senate versions are a combined $481 million above the House’s, however — money which could be reserved for the wall. Going down to the lowest amount either chamber has passed for each of the titles would free up even more. But then priorities ranging from food safety inspection to infrastructure would get shortchanged. 

Either way, it begs the question of why Trump would sign the four-bill package and take money off the table that he thinks could be better spent along the border.

And then there are the three remaining bills that have not advanced to the floor of either chamber: Homeland Security, Commerce-Justice-Science and State-Foreign Operations. Using the lower House numbers for the latter two measures would free up an additional nearly $1.1 billion that could be put towards border security if the negotiations were opened up to encompass all seven outstanding fiscal 2019 bills.

All told, shaving the remaining allocations for the seven bills down to the lowest of either chamber’s version would free up room for north of $4 billion in wall money — not quite Trump’s demand, but enough to say he got a pretty good deal.

The other option is a continuing resolution for some or all of the remaining bills, which could make room for up to $11.2 billion in nondefense savings that could be used for some pretty sizable funding “anomalies,” including billions in wall funding. Conservatives would get a big win, and Trump would get his wall.

But the Census Bureau would be deprived of money needed to conduct the 2020 Census, for instance. On what planet would Democrats agree to shortchanging their own domestic priorities in such a fashion, especially after last week’s midterm results? 

The best option, at least from the standpoint of appropriators and the federal agencies they provide money for, would be to wrap all seven remaining fiscal 2019 bills before the 115th Congress adjourns. That could involve splitting the funding differences between the chambers and getting somewhere into the $3 billion ballpark for the wall, or around double the previous fiscal year. 

There is some confidence an outcome like that can be achieved. But as always with the last legislative train leaving the station, appropriators also recognize there are higher powers at work.

“Appropriators left to their own devices will get to a deal. The real question is will they be left to their own devices,” House Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., said.

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