The Senate Must Fund the Border Wall with Budget Reconciliation
President Trump’s central election promise to build the southern border wall seems about to slip out of reach, with Democrats vowing to oppose any funding of the border wall. While the Democrats deserve a large share of the blame for this failure, if the Senate fails to use budget reconciliation to pass the $5.7 billion in border wall funding, it will be the fault of Republican Senate leadership. Failure to build the border wall will likely have significant negative consequences for national security and will bode ill for Republican hopes for victory in 2020 elections.
For the past few weeks, President Trump and Republican leadership in the Senate have repeatedly almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the fight for the border wall. The Senate has not pushed using budget reconciliation to fund the border wall, allowing the time to fly by as the clock ticks down on Republican control over the House of Representatives. This will be the last opportunity Republicans have of funding the border wall until at least 2021 (assuming Republicans control the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives). As recently as December 18, it appeared that President Trump had agreed with Senate leadership to indefinitely push off border wall funding in favor of passing the remainder of the 2019 budget.
It seemed like the long awaited border wall funding had finally slipped into the political abyss. Then, under withering criticism from conservatives and other supporters of the border wall, President Trump reversed course, making it clear that the remaining portions of the budget will only be signed once he receives funding for the wall. On December 20, Republicans in the House of Representatives responded by passing substantial border wall funding in the form of a bill allocating $5.7 billion for the wall and close to $8 billion in disaster relief for areas hit hard by this year’s hurricanes and wildfires.
While the $5.7 billion falls short of the $21.6 billion that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated it would take to complete the border wall, it is a substantial step in the right direction. DHS estimated that the $21.6 billion would fund a border wall that would extend almost the entire length of the border and would add about 1,250 miles to the border wall, which stood at 654 miles (at the time of the DHS report). $5.7 billion would fund over one-quarter of the border wall and allows President Trump to construct approximately 330 miles of additional border wall in the most vulnerable and dangerous parts of the border.
Republicans in the Senate have been trying to pass funding for the border wall by ending the Democrat filibuster. This would require 60 votes in the Senate. There is no real hope of getting one Democrat in the Senate, let alone nine. As if this was not obvious enough, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has made it abundantly clear that Democrats will not permit any funding of the border wall. Schumer said, “Everyone knew yesterday, long before the House vote, that the President's wall lacked 60 votes in the Senate.… It will never pass the Senate. Not today, not next week, not next year.”
President Trump, realizing that the border wall funding must pass to fulfill his campaign promise and to protect national security, called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on December 21 to use the nuclear option to pass the funding. However, Senator McConnell made it clear that Republicans don’t have the votes necessary to use the nuclear option. So the nuclear option is also not a viable option for border wall funding.
This leaves budget reconciliation as the only option to pass the $5.7 billion in border wall funding. Budget reconciliation, like the nuclear option, allows for a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate to pass legislation, rather than the normally required 60 votes. However, unlike the nuclear option, it would not break precedent and would likely enable the border funding bill to pass. In May 2018, the Heritage Foundation recommended that Republicans pass the 2019 budget using budget reconciliation. This would have resulted in a superior budget to the current budget and would have included substantial border wall funding because it would not have required support from the Democrats.
Budget reconciliation is the solution for funding the border wall, but has been ignored far too long by Republican leadership in the Senate. The strategy of relying on Democrat votes for the wall funding is guaranteed to fail and must be abandoned immediately. President Trump should insist that the Senate pass the $5.7 billion in border wall funding when back in session on December 27 using budget reconciliation.
Budget reconciliation has been successfully used since 1980 to pass over 20 pieces of legislation, most recently with the Trump tax cut passed in 2017. Additionally, the American Health Care Act of 2017 almost passed using reconciliation. Legislation by Congressman Byrne to fully fund $25 billion for the border wall using reconciliation was introduced in October. It is high time that Republicans focus on using this tool to finally pass the House bill that would fund $5.7 billion for the border wall.
It is even more likely that Republicans will pass $5.7 billion with reconciliation than if the bill would have funded $25 billion because all but one of the Republican senators are needed to vote in favor of this bill. While detractors of the bill in the Democrat party decry spending billions of dollars protecting the southern border, funding the border wall is a very small amount of money compared to the estimated 2019 budget of $4.448 trillion. $5.7 billion is only 0.128% or 1/780 as compared to the budget. And spending so little on the border wall to protect U.S. national security and fulfill a basic campaign promise is the least that can be done.
While, as Jason Chaffetz notes, an alternative option that President Trump may have is to use “unauthorized” spending from the budget, which is something that had been used in the Obama administration, it is important to keep in mind that Democrats will likely try to use every tool in their arsenal, including legal action, to keep President Trump from using such funds. It would be wise to pass $5.7 billion funding for the wall with budget reconciliation and then attempt to fund the remainder of the border wall using the “unauthorized” spending.
In advance of the Senate reconvening on December 27 at 4 PM, it is important that the public get in contact with Republican Senators and the White House to encourage them to change course and move for budget reconciliation and a simple majority rather than getting 60 votes in the Senate (which is Senator McConnell’s current plan). This option should also be the focus of conservative radio hosts, as well.
While President Trump and Senate Republicans are in agreement that the border wall should receive funding, the most promising solution to funding the wall seems to repeatedly evade their focus. Budget reconciliation could be key to funding the border wall, protecting national security, and fulfilling a key campaign promise that could prove decisive in Republican victories in the 2020 elections.