Republicans in Congress never really wanted to build the wall.
It wasn’t a priority like tax cuts, which are a raison d’être of Republican domestic policy. And it wasn’t their own campaign pledge to voters, like the vow to repeal and replace Obamacare that became hard to keep.
President Donald Trump’s signature campaign rally cry — “Build the Wall!” — was always more of a slogan than a policy. A “metaphor,” Republicans have called it — shorthand for the more complicated trade-offs that would be required for an immigration-and-border security deal. A “MacGuffin,” as one former top GOP aide put it Tuesday, only there to motivate action — in Trump’s case, for support.
That’s why funding the wall languished when Republicans controlled Congress, and why they now appear willing to take far less than the $5.7 billion Trump demanded in a deal with Democrats to prevent another partial government shutdown.
Alfonso Aguilar, a Department of Homeland Security official in the George W. Bush administration, said Trump’s wall became so “toxic” it drove away support. Even routine funding for border barriers and fences that have anchored security policy for more than a decade — some 700 miles already being built— became off limits.
“The problem is the president only talks about the big, beautiful wall,” said Aguilar, the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
And for Trump, he said, that quickly becomes a launching point to rail against drug smugglers and human traffickers in caravans at the border, though it’s clear that the vast majority of immigrants trying to enter the country illegally are not such criminals.
“The language hurts Trump,” Aguilar said. “What we didn’t like was the tone about the wall.”
Of course Republicans want to secure the borders. Both parties do. But they have different views on how to do it. And more importantly for counting votes in the House and Senate, they diverge on how much to pay for it and what other immigration changes to swap in return.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, recalled an early conversation when he asked Trump on the presidential campaign trail: ”‘You understand it’s way more complex than just building a wall?’ He said he understood that.”
Michael Steel, a top aide to then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the party agrees that border security should be a priority in Congress. But he said, “no one believes a Great Wall of China-style edifice along the Rio Grande is the answer to our problems.”
It was against that backdrop late last year Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi, about to take majority control of the House and become speaker, held firm against Trump’s demands and called the wall immoral. Democrats reminded voters that Trump once promised Mexico would pay for it.
Pelosi all but dared Republicans to show their cards, essentially taunting Trump during a meeting at the White House in December that he did not have the votes to support his demand for billions of dollars of wall money.
She had a point. Republicans had not pushed their bill forward during two years of control of the House and the Senate as well as the White House, partly because the GOP budget hawks would balk at the spending and centrists wouldn’t want to fund the wall without addressing other immigration provisions, including deportations for young immigrants in the U.S. illegally, known as “Dreamers.”
To prove Pelosi wrong, House Republicans quickly muscled Trump’s $5.7 billion border wall money to passage as one of the final votes of their majority. GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy and others took a victory lap.
But the Republican success was short-lived. The bill went nowhere in the Senate and Congress left town for the Christmas holidays, sparking what would become a 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history.
On Tuesday, Trump said he wasn’t “thrilled” with the compromise to prevent another shutdown, which would begin on Saturday. The bipartisan budget deal emerging in Congress provides nearly $1.4 billion for barriers and fencing, but no new money for the wall.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell encouraged Trump to hold off any decisions until he read through the details of the package. The GOP leader called it a “pretty good deal.”
A top Republican negotiator, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, put it this way: “We’re going to build a structure. And we’re going to secure America.”
Trump has not said whether he will support the deal, but he appeared to have already moved on to the next fight. As the agreement was coming together Monday night behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, the president was test driving a new campaign slogan at a rally with thousands in the border city of El Paso, Texas.
When the crowd erupted with the build-the-wall chant, Trump offered a new one, for his 2020 re-election campaign.
“You really mean ‘finish the wall,’” he said, “because we built it.”
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