After a 35 day shutdown of about a quarter of the federal government that left around 800,000 workers without pay, President Donald Trump and Congress on Friday agreed to restart the affected agencies through a three-week funding bill meant to give time for the administration and Republicans and Democrats in Congress to try and resolve their differences over border security.
The continuing resolution, which was expected to pass the House and Senate and be signed by the president on Friday, will fund a number of departments and agencies, including Homeland Security, Justice and NASA, at fiscal year 2018 levels. Separate legislation was also approved by both chambers to allow the respective appropriations committee to proceed to conference to negotiate the details of the DHS bill.
Trump, speaking from the White House on Friday afternoon, relented for the time being from his hard line that he wouldn’t sign any bill to reopen the government unless Congress provided $5.7 billion in funding for more than 230 miles of physical barriers on the nation’s southern border with Mexico. While he has been under pressure from some Republicans in Congress to reopen the affected agencies, and public opinion polls have shown dissatisfaction with the shutdown, Trump repeated his stance that more barriers will help staunch the flows of illegal migration, drugs and contraband into the U.S.
“So let me be very clear,” Trump said. “We really have no choice but to build a powerful wall, or steel barrier. If we don’t get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shutdown on February 15, again, or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and the Constitution of the United States to address this emergency. We will have great security.”
The path forward still looks rough. After Trump spoke, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) spoke on the Senate floor about the agreement but said “Democrats are against the wall.” Shortly after, he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) held a brief press conference where Schumer said “Democrats are firmly against the wall,” and Pelosi, who also opposes the wall, responded to a query about whether she has changed her position, saying, “Have I not been clear on a wall?”
There are currently 654 miles of various kinds of barriers—pedestrian and vehicle—along portions of the southern border that were erected through the 2006 Secure Fence Act. The steel barrier that the Trump administration has begun to erect in parts, is 30-feet high and consists of poles or slats that allow Border Patrol agents to see to the other side. Where there is existing fencing, it isn’t nearly as high, some it see-through and some of it not, and some of it is topped by concertina wire.
The administration originally requested about $1.64 billion for border security in FY ’19, with $1.6 billion pegged for the wall. The Senate Appropriations Committee last June agreed to the request with only five Democrats dissenting.
In July, the House Appropriations Committee provided $5 billion for the wall, with no Democrats in support. That markup, which Trump backed, initiated the eventual showdown between the administration and Congress, despite both chambers under Republican control in 2018 that led to the lapse in appropriations that began on Dec. 22, 2018.
With Democrats winning the House in the 2018 mid-term elections, Trump and Republicans in Congress have so far demonstrated they have no bargaining power to meet the president’s demand, which eventually grew to $5.7 billion.
At the White House on Friday, Trump said he’s “heard from enough Democrats and Republicans that they are willing to put partisanship aside,” and that “they finally and fully acknowledged that having barriers, fencing or walls, or whatever you want to call it, will be an important part of the solution.”
While there isn’t any evidence to support Trump’s claim about Democratic support for a wall, some Democrats, including House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have said that some form of barrier could be part of an eventual border security compromise.
Trump said his proposed walls “are not medieval,” but rather “smart” steel structures that “are equipped with sensors, monitors, and cutting-edge technology, including state-of-the art drones.”
Earlier in January, as part of the $5.7 billion request for the wall funding, the White House Office of Management and Budget sent to Congress a proposal for border security that would also add $631 million to the FY ’19 DHS request for non-intrusive inspection technology, which refers to X-Ray and other system that would be used to scan incoming traffic at inbound lanes of land ports of entry on the southern border for drugs, illegal migrants and other illicit materials.
Congress hasn’t taken up the new proposal but both Schumer and Pelosi said technology for detecting drugs and contraband will be part of the upcoming border security negotiations between House and Senate appropriators for the DHS bill.
Trump continues to argue that more walls will significantly stem the tide of illegal drugs into the U.S., although with the exception of marijuana, most come in through ports of entry that are monitored by Customs and Border Protection officers.
The shutdown has put on hold other priority technology programs within DHS, including the Coast Guard’s plans for a new heavy polar icebreaker and the Transportation Security Administration’s purchase of next-generation systems to scan carry-on bags at airport checkpoints. There is existing prior year funding for the TSA checkpoint systems but the Coast Guard’s Polar Security Cutter is in limbo. The Senate appropriators provided $750 million to keep the program on track for a construction award this year but the House appropriators eliminated the construction funds to help pay for the border security wall.