With Donald Trump’s talk of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Dennis Wagner of the Arizona Republic took an aerial tour of the nearly 2,000-mile border, from the mouth of the Rio Grande River to the Pacific Ocean.
President Trump has been adamant that he needs Congress to approve funding to start building his border wall, but Republicans on Capitol Hill are far less adamant about supporting it. When asked by the USA TODAY Network whether they support the president’s initial $1.6 billion budget request to begin construction, only 69 of the 292 Republicans on Capitol Hill said “yes.” Among the rest, three Republicans said they oppose the money, several evaded a direct answer, and the rest simply refused to respond to the question.
The USA TODAY Network asked the 534 members of the House and Senate whether they support the $1.6 billion down payment approved by the House and found fewer than 25% of Republicans willing to stand up for the plan.
The House approved $1.6 billion in startup funding as part of a broad national security spending package in July that included billions $658 billion for the Defense Department and $78 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The wall funding was tacked on to the bill at the last minute, and the legislation passed the House with the support of only five Democrats. Five Republicans voted against the bill.
The Senate has not yet taken up the measure, and Congress has since passed a temporary spending bill to keep the government running for the next few months. That puts off until December a battle over the wall and other Trump spending priorities.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., indicated last week that they had struck a deal with Trump to move legislation offering safe harbor for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, and that the bill would not include funding for Trump’s wall.
Rep. Will Hurd at his congressional office on June 21, 2017. (Photo: Henry Taylor, USA TODAY)
Trump suggested the next day that there was no deal, and that he is insistent on funding for the wall, though he acknowledged it may come later. “If the Democrats aren’t going to approve it [money for the wall], then we’re not going to do what they want,” Trump said. “The wall will happen.”
In the USA TODAY Network survey, three Republicans — Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Reps. Steve Pearce of New Mexico and Will Hurd of Texas — said they oppose the $1.6 billion expenditure to begin building the wall.
“I voted against including border wall funding into the recent appropriations package because I favor a border security solution based on improved technology and manpower,” Hurd told USA TODAY. “I’ve made it clear time and time again that building a physical wall from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.”
Pearce seconded this approach. “I fully support securing the border — it is imperative for the safety and security of New Mexico and our nation,” he said. “The solution must utilize modern technology and update the strategy our nation uses to patrol the border.”
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At an August rally in Phoenix, Trump said that he will demand the funding be included in legislation to fund the federal government. “Build that wall. Now the obstructionist Democrats would like us not to do it, but believe me if we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall,” he said. But Trump did not block the short-term government funding bill that Congress approved earlier this month despite its lack of money for the wall.
The overwhelming majority of congressional Republicans refused to take a stance on the wall funding when asked by USA TODAY. Most simply declined to participate in the survey or refused to even respond to queries. Many others offered general positions about the importance of securing the border and requiring employers to verify the immigration status of their workers.
President Trump addresses the crowd during a rally in Phoenix on Aug. 22, 2017. (Photo: Roy Dabner, European Pressphoto Agency)
“I agree with the president that secure borders are a vital part of our national security,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan. While Jordan did not specifically endorse the House-passed proposal, he did say, “For the good of our country, Congress should include border wall funding in government funding legislation this fall.”
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., provided a statement saying “our country’s immigration system today is fundamentally broken. Our borders are not secure, and our immigration laws are being broken by employers trying to skirt the rules and those who seek to come here illegally.”
In the end, 220 Republican lawmakers did not provide an answer to the question.
Democrats were much easier to get on the record. Of the 240 Democrats in Congress, 133? answered the USA TODAY survey and nearly every one was a decisive “no.” For Democrats, Trump’s wall — one of the defining themes of his campaign — was always an overly simplistic answer to the complex problem of immigration as well as an insult to Mexico and Latino Americans.
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Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, one of the most endangered Democrats up for re-election in 2018, offered the most nuanced answer about funding the wall.
“We need a border security strategy that includes the infrastructure, technology, equipment, and personnel necessary to secure our borders,” Donnelly said. “We also need to require employers to use the E-Verify system to ensure that they hire only legal workers. I supported each of these concepts in the Senate-passed comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform several years ago.
Most of his Democratic colleagues were far less tempered.
“A wall is nothing more than an illusion — a false promise — of security,” said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. “Instead of this boondoggle, which Democrats as well as many Republicans and Independents oppose, we should be considering real solutions of comprehensive immigration reform.”
Beneath the deep division over Trump’s border wall, the survey did reveal some areas that Democrats and Republicans support. Both ultra-conservative Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert and Sen. Al Franken, a leading progressive from Minnesota, said there is a need to strengthen the E-Verify program, an electronic system for employers to check the immigration status of employees.
Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, were among several lawmakers of both parties suggesting increased reliance on drone technology to help secure the border, an idea that Hurd and Flake also mentioned.
“”If ‘border walls’ are a metaphor for securing the border, which will include fencing in some areas, surveillance in others, drones, camera towers, then I think we all agree,” Flake said. “But not if it’s just going to be a border wall.”
To conduct this survey, newsrooms across the USA TODAY Network reached out individually to each congressional office requesting a response to several questions about border security. Every office was contacted several times to ensure they had an opportunity to respond.
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