Congressional Republicans have devised a way to help Donald Trump build a big, beautiful wall between the United States and Mexico, but it won’t go down as described in one of Trump’s favorite campaign chants. Initially, at least, the correct response to “Who’s gonna pay for the wall?” won’t be “Mexico!” but “U.S. taxpayers!”
Several lawmakers and Trump transition officials said they are exploring a plan to begin funding the wall as soon as April, without passing any new legislation. According to the Washington Post, Republican lawmakers believe that the Secure Fence Act of 2006 already gives the president the authority to construct a border wall. The law signed by former President George W. Bush called for construction of at least 700 miles of “physical barrier” along the southern border.
As Politico explains, the fence was never completed, and the secretary of Homeland Security can decide what kind of “physical barrier” should be constructed:
Ultimately, only 36 miles of double-layer fencing was erected. U.S. Customs and Border Protection built roughly 350 miles of single-layer pedestrian fences, most which stand about 18 feet, and 300 miles of low-level vehicle barriers that any person could easily walk through, according to sources following the matter.
Constructing an “impenetrable physical wall,” as it says on Trump’s website, would cost billions of dollars. Congressional Republicans are considering tucking the initial funding for the project into a spending bill that must pass by April 28 to keep the government funded. That would set the stage for a government shutdown battle, but Republicans believe they could win the public-relations fight because the 2006 bill passed with support from Democrats — including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and then senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Though most voters probably missed it, at one point Trump did explain that his plan for funding the wall was more nuanced than his catchphrase suggested. “I said Mexico is paying for the wall, with the full understanding that the country of Mexico will be reimbursing the United States for the full cost of such a wall, okay?” he said during an October 22 speech in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. “We’re going to have the wall. Mexico is going to pay for the wall.”
Trump himself is seeming to have a hard time figuring out how this whole paying for the wall thing is going to work. Early Friday, he tweeted that the “dishonest media does not report that any money spent building the Great Wall, will be paid back by Mexico.” About an hour later, he amended that Tweet to clarify that the wall “will be paid back by Mexico later.”
The plan being floated by Republicans in Congress would not preclude Trump from making Mexico pay for the wall eventually. Last spring, Trump said he would accomplish this by freezing money transfers from the United States to Mexico until our neighbors to the south agreed to fork over billions for the wall. Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto said after meeting Trump in August that his country will not pay for the wall.
After Trump surrogates suggested that he might construct a “virtual wall,” the candidate reiterated that he would build a concrete wall (the height kept shifting between 30 and 65 feet). Days after the election, the president-elect said, “There could be some fencing,” and it doesn’t appear that GOP lawmakers are tied to constructing an actual wall all along the border.
“There’s already in existing law the authorization for hundreds of miles of build out on the southern border … so, one important step in the right direction will be funding the existing law and beginning the building out of hundreds of miles of wall, or fence, on the southern border,” said House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Luke Messer.
So Trump’s campaign promise may need to be revised a little further: We’re going to build big, ugly patchwork of concrete and fence along the border, and someday Mexico might pay for it.
This post has been updated.