The border wall region, from the air
Donald Trump isn’t getting the “big, beautiful” wall he wants at the border with Mexico anytime this year. And it’s highly unlikely he’ll get it in 2019 or 2020.
Trump insisted via Twitter Wednesday, “One way or the other, we will win on the Wall!” His last best 2018 hope was to hold up funding part of the government until he got $5 billion for the project.
But the votes for that sum, or for that matter much of anything involving progress on a wall, aren’t there. Congress is expected to leave for the year Thursday if the House, as anticipated, passes a stopgap budget that prevents a partial government shutdown Friday night. The Senate approved the measure late Wednesday by voice vote.
The president’s other options for massive wall funding are extreme longshots at best.
He talks about using new money resulting from a U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. But he offers no specifics.
He floats the idea of using funds from other agencies. Democrats — and even some Republicans — aren’t going to go along with that.
More telling was how on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell began pushing the plan to avert a partial shutdown. He offered a plan that would fund through Feb. 8 the nine Cabinet agencies and several smaller departments that could run out of money Friday night.
Opposition among Trump supporters is growing, and McConnell said the Senate would stay in session this week to “see what the House does with what we just sent them.”
The plan seals off the last chance Trump could get money for his wall from the Republican-controlled Congress. Democrats will run the House for the next two years starting in January, and are adamantly opposed to giving Trump any money for a wall.
“The administration is going to have to come to grips with: ‘We’re not for the wall, we don’t think the wall is good policy,’” House Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, told reporters.
Trump, who pledged on the campaign trail in 2016 that Mexico would pay for the wall, tweeted Wednesday that Mexico would pay indirectly through the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which replaced NAFTA.
“Far more money coming to the U.S.,“ Trump asserted. “Because of the tremendous dangers at the Border, including large-scale criminal and drug inflow, the United States Military will build the Wall!”
But he offered no details, and critics question how the agreement would generate the approximately $25 billion needed to build his wall.
Another option was offered Tuesday by White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders’, who said that Trump has “asked every agency to look and see if they have money that can be used for that purpose.”
Finding enough money for Trump’s ambition would be nearly impossible.
Transferring funds within agencies generally needs congressional approval. According to a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, “An agency may only transfer budgetary resources if Congress has provided the agency with the statutory (legal) authority to do so. “
Democrats are hardly about to let that happen in order to pay for a wall, while Republicans offered a glimmer of hope shifted money could be found.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, whose state includes more than 1,200 miles of the U.S. border with Mexico, said the president was exploring using money for the wall from other projects funded by the Army Corps of Engineers, which is involved in the wall’s construction.
The Corps, however, has already made plans for the money Congress gave it for the 2019 fiscal year, including flood control and other projects spread across lawmakers’ congressional districts.
“I would want to know where that money would be shifted from,” said Cornyn, whose state is still relying on the Corps for recovery projects related to 2017’s Hurricane Harvey.
“If it’s shifted from some account that is non-critical in function, then I might be open to it,” said Cornyn. “But if it’s taking money out of the pockets of our soldiers, airmen or Marines, then I would not.”
There’s also some question whether such uses are permitted as part of the Pentagon’s mission.
Democrats said Trump would risk running afoul of Article One of the Constitution which gives Congress the power of the purse.
“Let me be very clear, the administration can not reprogram funds appropriated by Congress for the full wall without our assent,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor. “They cannot do it on their own and the House and Senate will not approve a wall from reprogrammed funds or anything else. It won’t happen.”
Hoyer, too, said that the White House would not be allowed to move around enough money to build the type of wall that Trump has talked about.
“If they reprogram significant sums of money, they have to come back to Congress,” he said. “You can’t just do it willy-nilly.”
Outside government watchdogs agreed: “The president and the administration can talk about the military doing it all they want, but the truth is there is no money for the wall in the already enacted defense budget so they can’t just shift funds to build it,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The administration would only be able to move money from the defense budget if it obtained permission from Congress, and that’s not going to happen once Democrats take control of the House in January, said Ellis, whose group has questioned the effectiveness of a border wall.
He noted fund transfers are normally reserved to address unforeseen costs, rather than policy proposals that can’t pass. The administration caused uproar this year when it transferred $169 million within the Homeland Security budget from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Immigration .and Customers Enforcement, a fraction of the $5 billion transfer Trump is floating, Ellis noted.
Trump now faces the possibility that some of his advisers have warned him about: that he could go into 2020 without delivering on his signature campaign promise.
Trump had his opportunities to strike a deal before. He reached a tentative agreement last year with Pelosi and Schumer to protect some undocumented young immigrants in exchange for increased security at the border, but not necessarily a wall. Democrats, though, charged at the time that Trump soon backed out of the deal and insisted on cuts to legal immigration.
Cornyn said Republicans on Capitol Hill would keep looking for ways to pay for additional border security after the short-term spending bill runs out in February.
“The fight over this will continue, probably up to and including the 2020 election,” he said.
Indeed, one of Trump’s closest congressional allies urged a presidential veto, warning that Trump would do “major damage” to his re-election bid if he signed a measure without money for the wall.
Trump’s supporters believe it’s a promise he made and plans to keep, said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, who chairs the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
“We’re ready to fight on behalf of all the freedom loving Americans to make sure we have secure borders,” Meadows said as a parade of caucus members urged support for the wall on the House floor. “It’s time that we deliver on behalf of the American people and deliver what the president promised.”