Spending Deal May Hinge on One Question: What Is "the Wall"?

A bipartisan agreement on budget and immigration could work if both sides can claim victory.

Prototypes of border walls in San Diego
AP Photo/Elliott Spagat
Jan. 9, 2018, 8 p.m.

The key to unsticking Washington’s current legislative mess may be determining the definition of “The Wall.”

President Trump’s top campaign promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to reduce illegal immigration and crime has long been open to interpretation. But now the administration and Congress must come to a consensus on its meaning in order to resolve some of the most urgent matters facing them.

The varying definitions of Trump’s signature campaign promise allow Democrats and Republicans to each claim victory in any deal, potentially unlocking other pressing issues.

Rep. Tom Cole said that Trump will call whatever Congress approves “The Wall” for political gain, “just like Democrats are going to call it ‘Not a Wall,’ because they need to.”

Much is at stake. Congress wants to raise budget caps and pass a government-spending bill by a Jan. 19 deadline. Trump has set a March deadline for Congress to pass legislation codifying the popular Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that President Obama created through executive action, granting legal status to some 700,000 young people who came into the country illegally.

Congress has tied the priorities of conservatives and liberals on immigration issues together—from “The Wall” to DACA to family sponsorship and the diversity-visa lottery—so Democrats and Republicans can find bipartisan agreement. But Democrats are still pushing to include those negotiations in the looming budget battles, even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that the financial and immigration fights will be separately treated.

Over the past couple of years, Trump has offered varying descriptions of the proposed wall, from “impenetrable,” “physical,” and “tall” to one that has “openings” allowing people to see through it. Last week, Democrats strongly objected to the administration’s ask for $18 billion over the next decade to reinforce and build hundreds of miles of fencing, which would reportedly cover more than half of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border with a physical structure.

In a meeting with members of Congress on Tuesday, Trump backed away from that initial offer, but reiterated his desire for a wall. Trump also said that he would agree to whatever Congress sends him because he held the members present in the room with such high regard.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have taken to calling border-security measures on which many Democrats could agree “The Wall.”

“There is NO PLAN to build a 2,500 mile concrete wall along entire southern border,” said Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma on Twitter. “There are places where fencing (The Wall) is the best security. In other places, drones, surveillance & increased border agents are more effective.”

After meeting with the president, Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican, said in an interview, “For the first time, he has made clear he’s not talking about a monolithic structure.

“He said there are places along the border, and he happens to be right, where there are natural barriers—rivers, mountains, and the like,” Cornyn said. “And he also made the point that this could well be what other people call a fence, because he made the point that the Border Patrol needs to see through it.

“The nomenclature here talking about ‘wall’ is a little misleading,” added Cornyn, who referred to a “system” of barriers, technologies, and U.S. agents that protect the border.

On Tuesday, Republicans and Democrats said there was enough common ground to find a compromise on immigration, even though Congress failed to pass a major overhaul of the system during the Barack Obama and George W. Bush eras.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said there are “many” Republicans in the Senate who would agree to “enshrine” DACA protections just as there are “many” Democrats who would support “smart, reasonable, practical border-security measures.

“The problem thus far has been President Trump’s insistence on a completely ineffective and absurdly expensive border wall as a part of any deal on DACA,” Schumer added.

Frank Sharry, a longtime immigration advocate who leads the left-leaning pro-reform group America’s Voice, said of Trump’s wall: "It’s become like something between a Rorschach test and a metaphor. You know that whatever happens he’s going to claim he won. But it’s pretty clear there’s not going to be any concrete wall coming out of this deal."

Meanwhile, a group of House Republicans said they will introduce a measure Wednesday as an opening offer that is expected to trade DACA protections for heavy border enforcement as well as increased interior enforcement and mandatory verification of workers. The latter piece is likely the most controversial, but some conservatives say it may be even more important than the wall.

“The wall is probably a key component but E-Verify is probably more important. That will end the magnet and the giant green light for 8 billion people who all want to make $50,000 instead of whatever the world-average GDP is,” Rep. Dave Brat said.

Still, more-moderate Republicans said that deal likely amounts to a conservative wish list, rather than something that will pass in the end. Rep. Charlie Dent said any final deal is more likely to include 300 votes from Democrats and Republicans than just 218 from the House GOP.

Cole called a deal that shores up the status of young immigrants in exchange for enough funding to build some 600 miles of border barrier a no-brainer—so long as Democrats and Republicans can get past the politics.

“That’s not the Great Wall of China on the southern border. So I think people will get caught up in the terms and they’re mad about the election,” he added. “We’re making this harder than it needs to be because we’re getting caught up in the politics of our respective bases.”

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