By Meg Wagner
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Tuesday implied that President Donald Trump’s promised border wall could be built on Mexican soil — but the White House is still scrabbling to find funding for the project.
In a Tuesday speech to the Public Land Council in Washington, Zinke said the proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall — projected to cost anywhere between $12 billion and $67 billion — is an especially complicated project, because the Rio Grande already serves as a natural divider.
“What side of the river are you going to put the wall?” he asked, according to E&E News, an energy and environmental news site. “We’re not going to put it on our side and cede the river to Mexico. And we’re probably not going to put it in the middle of the river.”
He added that electronic surveillance devices may be more useful instead of a physical wall in some places, although he did not specify if the river — which separates Texas from four Mexican states — was one of those areas. Meanwhile, Trump has insisted that only a physical wall will do.
Democrats quickly claimed that Zinke’s vague comment was a suggestion to put the wall on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. “These guys… now the wall is going to be IN Mexico,” Matt House, a staffer for Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), tweeted.
A 1970 treaty establishes the middle of the river as the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Trump’s critics insisted that building on the Mexican side would raise a host of legal issues and could fracture the relationship between the two countries.
Meanwhile, the White House’s unveiled its latest proposal to fund the wall on Tuesday. The long-shot idea asks Congress to cut $18 billion from the 2017 federal budget — a move that would defund federal community grants, medical research initiatives, and infrastructure projects — to offset wall construction costs.
Wall’s total cost unknown, but expensive
Trump’s promise to erect a border between the U.S. and Mexico was a cornerstone of his campaign. After he included the plan in his 2015 announcement speech, “Build the wall!” was frequently chanted at his rallies.
On the campaign trail, Trump said that he’d make Mexico pay for the wall, but that promise altered after he was elected. In January, he said the U.S. would foot the bill for the divider up-front — for the “sake of speed” — and make Mexico reimburse the American government later.
There’s no consensus on how much the wall will cost. Before asking for $18 billion in spending cuts this week, Trump suggested that the project would need $12 billion, while Congressional Republican leaders said that it could take $15 billion. A Department of Homeland Security report indicated that the wall would need more than $21 billion to complete. On Tuesday, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) predicted that the border divider would cost a whopping $66.9 billion — or $200 for every single American.
With the U.S. on the hook for the wall funding (at least initially), the White House has struggled to secure the money for it. In January, the administration suggested a 20 percent tax on Mexican imports, but that plan withered amid public outrage over how it would increase the price of avocados and imported beer.
Democrats promise no spending on ‘pointless wall’
It’s unlikely that Congress’s fiscal-year 2017 budget will include any provisions for funding the wall. On Tuesday, House Republicans announced that they’re putting Trump’s first request for wall funding — $1.5 billion requested in March, through a supplemental spending bill — on hold until later this year.
The White House had hoped to include the supplemental spending bill in the federal government’s 2017 budget, which must pass by April 28 to avoid a government shutdown, but lawmakers said it would further complicate already delicate negotiations, and must wait until after that deadline.
“All the House and Senate leadership is working together to finalize the FY ’17 bills,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters Tuesday. “My guess is that comes together better without the supplemental.”
Democrats have used the funding standstill to reiterate their vows to stop the project all together.
“Senate Democrats are prepared to fight this all the way,” Schumer said Tuesday. “Instead of spending taxpayer dollars on a pointless wall, we should be investing in creating jobs and fixing our infrastructure.”