WASHINGTON – Building a border wall remains a stated top priority for President Donald Trump, but thus far he has precious little to show for it.
That’s largely because when Congress appropriated money earlier this year to fund the government, opposition from Democrats and some Republicans alike left the administration empty handed in terms of funding any new construction.
Trump’s Department of Homeland Security did get permission to reassign $20 million to fund prototypes for wall construction as well as new money for technology, maintenance and hiring for Border Patrol.
But the biggest thing Trump wants remains the biggest thing Democrats want to deny him — the ability to point at a structure and say: Here is the wall.
Multiple sources familiar with negotiations for both the fiscal year 2017 budget and 2018 cycle say that the White House did mobilize behind the wall — putting it in their proposed budget and having representatives like Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly stump for it.
But Democrats from the outset threatened that inclusion of wall money would be a deal breaker on the budget, which needs Democratic votes to pass, meaning the White House risked a government shutdown standoff on the President’s 100th day in office if it forged ahead.
Ultimately, the White House accepted a budget deal that did not include the wall.
“Their priorities were made known, obviously,” said a House GOP aide, who requested anonymity to speak freely. But, the aide added, there was also an awareness that a second chance at money would be coming up this fall.
“I didn’t get the impression that they were deeply disappointed or unhappy,” the aide said of the White House. “I think they realized the situation and will continue to work toward to getting more money.”
Negotiations are well underway for the next chance, in the budget for fiscal year 2018.
But it’s an open question whether the administration will push Congress harder on getting money for the wall after caving on the signature campaign pledge this spring. The dynamics of the situation haven’t changed to give the White House any more leverage.
Already, Democrats have again signaled that a wall is a no-go. In a letter this week to their Republican counterparts, the top Senate Democrats in leadership and the Appropriations committee laid out their red lines.
“We are once again concerned with the President’s Fiscal Year 2018 request for a very expensive, ineffective new wall along the southern border with Mexico,” the Democrats wrote.
And other barriers in Congress remain. Border state lawmakers of both parties are largely against a massive wall in their districts, preferring technology and smart infrastructure. Even without Democratic support, it’s unclear if Republicans have the votes among themselves to move forward with a wall.
Appropriators and lawmakers have also pushed DHS to present a complete border wall strategy rather than piecemeal requests for a few dozen miles at a time as they have done to date.
In a briefing on the status of the wall on Tuesday, acting Deputy Commissioner for Customs and Border Protection Ronald Vitiello told reporters that the agency was moving forward and hoped to complete building prototypes by “end of summer,” though which prototypes will get chosen to move forward is still to be decided.
He said right now, DHS is evaluating what’s possible and prudent on a year-by-year basis.
“We’re confident in all the things we’re going to do in ’17, and our request for ’18 reflects what we think we can accomplish,” Vitiello said. “As we go forward, we’re going to continue to iterate the model to tell us what will happen in the coming years.”
Ultimately, a Senate Democratic aide said, the White House did make an effort on the issue, but said it didn’t pull out all the stops to pressure key votes to relent, even in their own party.
“I think they wanted it very badly, but they’re too incompetent to actually carry out a sustained campaign to achieve it,” the aide said.