A photo op that came in advance of a meeting between President Trump and Congressional Democrats turned into an extraordinary debate before cameras as both parties appeared to dig into their respective positions over border security, portending a government shutdown days before Christmas.
The ongoing political fight over the U.S.-Mexico border region took center stage as President Trump vowed a partial government shutdown if he doesn’t get $5 billion to fund the border wall he promised during the campaign. The buildup to that fight began in unusual fashion in front of cameras as the leadership sat down together. But Texans in the House from both parties are calling the showdown an unnecessary fight over a wasteful idea.
“I think saying that a shutdown is a good thing is poor policy and it’s poor politics,” said Representative Will Hurd, a Republican from Helotes who represents more than 800 miles of the border and has been one of the leading GOP critics of Trump’s wall proposal. “The reality is both sides, the president and the Democrats in Congress, need to start thinking about win-win solutions rather than a win-lose solution. It seems like the people involved in this negotiation want to win and they want the other side to lose.”
Texas border Democrats are taking a much more aggressive stance as the party prepares to assume the House majority after January 3. Their starting point in wall funding negotiations is zero. Twelve Democrats representing Texas border areas, led by Representative Henry Cuellar of Laredo, made that point in a November 28 letter to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. “Any appropriations for a border wall would have unequivocally deleterious economic, diplomatic, and environmental effects on the region. We believe the Democrats should oppose all funding for a physical wall along the U.S.-Mexico border in the FY 2019 Appropriations package.” Cuellar has an unusually strong hand to play as a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which stands at the middle of the funding battle. Cuellar told Texas Monthly that he has no dollar figure in mind currently that he is willing to accept for wall funding—but he is willing to negotiate.
The letter set off conflict with Schumer because the Texas Democrats said they were writing to the top Democrat in the Senate to “express our alarm and opposition to your comments that $1.6 billion for a physical wall along the border is the starting negotiating position for any Democrats.” Politico reported that Schumer asked Cuellar and the other Texans to withdraw their letter, saying they were mischaracterizing his position. Schumer’s spokesman said the $1.6 billion agreed to by Senate Democrats was for border security measures other than a wall. The Texans, however, stood their ground.
The funding fight could also emerge as an early test to Representative Nancy Pelosi, who is still battling to secure enough votes to become House speaker in January. Although she is the clear front-runner to become speaker, The Washington Post reports she still does not have enough votes—something she is doggedly trying to rectify before the new Congress convenes in January. Within that context, a letter recently sent to Pelosi by two south Texas congressmen—Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen and Filemon Vela of Brownsville—carries political undertones that extend beyond the fight to withhold funding for the wall. “We write to respectfully request that you exercise your leadership and take a strong stand against the funding of physical barriers along our southern borders,” a December 6 letter signed by both congressmen said. “We ask that you clearly advise Senate leadership that funding for physical barriers along the southern border is a nonstarter.” The letter closed with a second plea to Pelosi to exercise her leadership on the issue.
President Trump has signed a number of appropriations bills this year, including major bills for the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs. But six appropriations bills are still before Congress, including money for the Department of Homeland Security, which is where any wall funding would fall. The Republican-controlled House has supported $5 billion for the border wall. That large of an appropriation, combined with last fiscal year’s $1.6 billion appropriation, is enough to wall off a region from Falcon Lake southeast of Laredo to Boca Chica Beach, south of Brownsville, critics say. In the Senate, where Democrats have more power because of the filibuster, the Appropriations Committee approved $1.6 billion for “pedestrian fencing” in the Rio Grande Valley.
The original deadline for passing the spending bills to avert a government shutdown was December 7, but President Trump signed a two-week extension passed by Congress because of the funeral for former President George H.W. Bush. The new deadline is December 21, four days before Christmas. Shortly after signing the extension, Trump said: “Congress must fully fund border security in the year-ending funding bill,” including $5 billion for the wall. He has repeatedly threatened to partially shut down the government if he doesn’t get the money, but he has backed off similar threats in the past.
Texas’ senior senator, Republican John Cornyn, said a shutdown doesn’t make sense. But he didn’t stake out a position on the wall funding. “Well, we’ve seen that movie before,” he said in a recent call with reporters. “Shutting down the government doesn’t solve the problem because at some point, you need to re-open the government and then you still have the same problem staring you in the face. So I hope that cooler heads will prevail.”
One idea that has been repeatedly floated over the past year is for a compromise that would call for Democrats to agree to border wall funding while Republicans agree to permanently legalize the status of so-called “Dreamers,” people who came to the country illegally as children. Those people are currently protected by an executive action by then-President Obama called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Trump has moved to end DACA, but that is being challenged in the courts. Former Washington Post owner Don Graham recently wrote an opinion piece in his former paper calling for Democrats and Republicans to swap the wall for Dreamers. “Do it, Congress. Do it now,” Graham wrote. But many critics have expressed concerns that Dreamers are being used as political bargaining chips.
Hurd, the lone Republican Texas House member representing the border, thinks something similar to Graham’s proposal could win support in the House and Senate, though not a large sum for physical barriers on the border. He said the outlines of a deal that could win bipartisan support are well-known and now include protection for hundreds of thousands of immigrants about to face deportation as they lose temporary protected status, or TPS. “It’s a permanent DACA fix for a million-plus young men and women that have only known the United States of America as a home. It is robust funding to the Department of Homeland Security for everything to include technology. I think the price of the president getting some of what he wants on border security, you have to throw TPS into the mix and having a permanent solution to the TPS issue.”
The Dreamers-for-a-wall deal is a non-starter for Texas border Democratic House members. Representative Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, who unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz this year, said a group of about 50 Dreamers came to Washington earlier this year to press their case. “What really hit me was all of them, to a person, said they did not want to trade their parents’ status for deportation for their status or ability to be on a path to citizenship,” O’Rourke said. “And they all, to a person, said they didn’t want to trade their communities for guaranteed status in the country. In other words, they didn’t want a wall. They didn’t want that to be the price of their ability to live free of the fear of deportation.”
Representative-elect Veronica Escobar of El Paso, who will succeed O’Rourke in the House next month, said Democrats have ceded too much ground to Republicans in the border security debate. “I’ve been told (increased border security spending) polls well and members who are in tough seats have told me this is a very tough thing for me because it does poll so well. And my response has been, it polls well because Democrats sound like Republicans on it, because we keep joining them in their calls to quote unquote secure the border,” Escobar said. “We have a wall. Border Patrol and ICE have grown significantly in the last decade. Border apprehensions are still low when you look back on the last decade. And so it’s something that polls well because we haven’t changed the conversation. It’s time to change the way we talk about this and to talk about the reality, the enormous investment (already made in border security) and the fact that we are at the best place where they want us to be—safe, secure. And we’ve got to move on to the next part of that conversation, which is immigration reform and protecting our Dreamers.”