Border Wall Money Talks Intensify as Decision Time Nears

By Nancy Ognanovich

The prospect that the Senate Appropriations Committee may proceed to mark up the annual Homeland Security bill has set off behind-the-scenes negotiations over its details, including whether it will carry funds for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, lawmakers said.

Although the committee’s schedule remains in flux, lawmakers said the panel led by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) continues to weigh options for funding the initial sections of the wall at a cost of about $1.6 billion.

However, the committee said it is working on details minus the analysis appropriators ordered the Homeland Security Department to provide them by August in advance of moving the fiscal year 2018 bill.

“We are in constant contact with [DHS], talking about how important it is to get that,” Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairman John Boozman (R-Ark.) told Bloomberg BNA. “We want to know what the plan is and how we’re going to secure the border and have the dollars to appropriate.”

Funding for the wall is one of the “moving parts” Boozman and ranking member Jon Tester (D-Mont.) are discussing while waiting for the signal to prepare the measure for markup, Boozman said, adding that he’s determined to get the funds into the bill.

“We’re going to have money for the wall,” Boozman said. “I’m not quite sure what the number will be, but probably significant funds.”

The Homeland Security bill is one of four of the regular 12 appropriations bills that the committee has yet to move, even though the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Some pressure was taken off lawmakers, however, after a new stopgap ( H.R. 601) providing federal funds through Dec. 8 was signed into law this month.

Tester anticipates that there may be border wall money in the measure but told Bloomberg BNA the funding scheme is uncertain.

“We are still negotiating because, interestingly enough, there’s a push by some to bump that above the allotment—by the Republicans,” Tester said. “So we’ll see what they end up doing.”

$24 Million a Mile

Earlier plans to have the bill move with others the week of Sept. 25 were scuttled amid Senate Republican leaders’ plans to tackle health-care change and other priorities, appropriators said. However, they are waiting to see if more markups are scheduled the week of Oct. 2, they said.

Cochran is working with essentially the same allocation as this year’s $1.070 trillion discretionary total. Homeland Security emerged with a higher allocation of $44.050 billion that appeared to cover the $1.6 billion Trump wants this year to start building the wall.

The increase that Tester said some Republicans are eyeing could be added to that, suggesting that they want to ensure increases first for core Homeland Security programs. Boozman said he and others are also trying to better finance other border security initiatives.

The discussion isn’t about a long wall spanning four states but initial sections, expected to include two in Texas, Tester said, adding that he and Democrats have some concerns.

“I want to see the metrics around it. The last metrics I got was $24 million a mile,” Tester said. “I think we can do better security, more effective security, cheaper. And that doesn’t even include the land that would be sealed off from a wall.”

Homeland Security this year was said to have estimated the cost of the wall at $21.6 billion. However, a Brookings Institution analysis indicated that figure may be a “major understatement.”

Estimates vary widely, depending on whether the project would be solid concrete or a see-through structure that Trump described in recent months, the analysis said. And there are legal fees associated with the project if land is seized to build the wall, Brookings said. Some 90 lawsuits in Texas are still open after a 2008 effort to build a fence there, it said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.