July 27, 2017 BY CRISTINA MARCOS AND NIV ELIS
The House approved a national security-themed spending package on Thursday that includes $1.6 billion to start building President Trump’s proposed border wall.
The $827 billion package passed largely along party lines, with a vote of 235-192. Five Republicans voted no, while five Democrats voted yes.
The five Republicans to vote against the package were Reps. Justin Amash(Mich.), John Duncan Jr. (Tenn.), Walter Jones (N.C.), Thomas Massie (Ky.) and Mark Sanford (S.C.).
Five centrist Democrats voted in favor: Reps. Sanford Bishop (Ga.), Charlie Crist (Fla.), Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), Tom O’Halleran (Ariz.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).
The bill includes spending bills for defense and veterans programs, legislative branch operations and the Department of Energy.
The inclusion of funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, which fully meets Trump’s budget request, makes it likely that Senate Democrats will block the spending package when it moves to the upper chamber.
But House passage serves as an opening salvo in the debate to avoid a government shutdown this fall, which will start in earnest when lawmakers return from the summer recess.
Government funding will run out on Oct. 1 absent an agreement.
Trump is eager to fulfill a central campaign promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, but he has encountered resistance from Democrats, and even some Republicans, who say it is impractical.
House GOP leaders used a procedural maneuver to unilaterally add the $1.6 billion for the wall to the spending package without a standalone up-or-down vote on it. That move prevented what could have been a tough vote on the wall proposal for some GOP lawmakers.
Trump pledged that Mexico would pay for the wall, but all of the funds in the bill approved Thursday would be paid for by American taxpayers. The Mexican government has repeatedly said it will not pay for any border wall.
Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) represents the largest portion of the southwestern border compared to any other House member. He introduced legislation on Thursday that would direct the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to prioritize using technology to protect the border rather than a physical wall. It would require the DHS to submit a report to Congress outlining a comprehensive strategy.
“We can’t double down on a Third Century approach to solve 21st Century problems if we want a viable long-term solution,” Hurd said in a statement.
Hurd voted against the procedural move to add the funds for the wall, along with fellow border-district Republican Rep. Steve Pearce (N.M.). But he and Pearce both supported the spending package on the final passage vote.
The $1.6 billion included in the House spending bill would be specifically used for a limited span of physical barriers in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and San Diego, Calif. It would amount to 32 miles of new fencing and 28 miles of new levee wall in the Rio Grande Valley, as well as 14 miles of secondary fencing in San Diego.
Although the bill passed with the border wall funding included, only a handful of GOP lawmakers echoed Trump’s rhetoric about the Mexican border wall during House floor debate.
“The best thing we could do as a good neighbor to Mexico is to build a wall where it’s needed, just like President Trump’s talked about, stop that flow of tens of billions of dollars to Mexico used for corruption to keep down the Mexican people, hardworking, God-fearing people, and bring that country up by being a good neighbor,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).
Besides wall funding, the bill includes a $68 billion increase for the Defense Department, a $3.9 billion top-up for the Department Veterans Affairs and new funds for members of Congress to increase their personal security.
It also includes a $29 million funding increase for the Capitol Police, prompted in the wake of last month’s shooting at the GOP baseball practice that injured House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and four others.
Over the course of the two day debate over the bill, the House approved dozens of amendments that ranged from allowing lawmakers to use taxpayer funds for residential security to blocking a new round of military installation closures.
Lawmakers rejected two attempts by conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus to cut funding for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The CBO has been heavily criticized by Republicans since the CBO estimated that all the versions of the GOP’s bills to repeal and replace ObamaCare would result in tens of millions more people without health insurance.
Close to half of the House GOP conference joined with Democrats to defeat both amendments.
The package approved on Thursday only includes four of the 12 annual appropriations bills. The other eight spending bills, which GOP leadership had originally hoped to include in the package, will not be considered until after the House returns from its August recess.
House appropriators had pushed for considering a government-wide spending package, but were unsuccessful.
The approaching August recess leaves House Republicans significantly behind where they had hoped to be by summer’s end. Ambitious legislative plans had included addressing the debt ceiling, passing a budget resolution and moving all 12 spending bills along, leaving the autumn open for tax reform.
But challenges loom for the House Republican agenda.
The full Republican caucus has not yet signaled its support for a budget resolution, a document that under normal order would have passed before any spending bills. The resolution will be key for two Republican priorities: cutting mandatory spending and passing tax reform without the need for Democratic support.
Republican leadership has still not settled on a strategy for passing the remaining eight spending bills, a feat that may prove challenging. Had all the bills been considered at once, Republicans may have found it more difficult to vote against the package, lest they be accused of down-voting large increases to defense spending. One by one, the bills may face opposition.
Even if all the bills pass, Congress faces an October deadline for reaching an overall spending deal to keep the government funded. That deal will require approval in the Senate, meaning some Senate Democrats will have to come on board.
Senate appropriators have been advancing spending bills based on a totally different spending outlook from the House. Whereas the House decided to increase defense spending by billions of dollars and cut nondiscretionary spending from current levels, the Senate has opted to keep the current levels more or less in place.
Beyond that, the House also has to decide on a strategy for dealing with the debt ceiling. Without action, the Treasury is slated to lose its borrowing power by mid-October, which would lead to a catastrophic debt default.