Wall Street Journal
By Laura Meckler and Siobhan Hughes
July 27, 2017
WASHINGTON—House Republicans were working to pass legislation Thursday funding President Donald Trump’s promised wall along the border with Mexico, after dodging controversy surrounding transgender military service that threatened to derail the bill.
House leaders also helped their chances by ensuring that members don’t have to vote directly on the border wall spending, which is opposed by Democrats and some Republican lawmakers. The wall funding is included in a larger bill to fund the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is less controversial.
At the same time, some House conservatives had been threatening to vote against the spending bill unless the White House promised not to use tax dollars to fund gender-reassignment surgery for these service members, a House Republican aide said Thursday.
Two weeks ago, an amendment to ban such spending failed on the House floor, and GOP leaders told proponents that a second vote wasn’t likely to turn out any differently. Proponents asked leadership if there was some other way for Congress to force a policy change and were told no.
Conservatives in both the House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee then reached out to the White House, holding conversations with policy staff and “at the highest levels,” one aide said. Two other aides said that Mr. Trump was concerned that the spending bill—including money for the border wall—could fail if he didn’t act on the transgender issue.
The conservatives didn’t request an outright ban on transgender people serving in the military—only a guarantee taxpayer funds wouldn’t pay for gender-reassignment surgery. They were surprised when Mr. Trump announced a ban via Twitter Wednesday morning, reversing an Obama-era change. Pentagon officials said they, too, were surprised.
A White House spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. On Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Mr. Trump made the decision after consultation with his national security team and because he believed that service of transgender people “erodes military readiness and unit cohesion.”
With the transgender issue out of the way, the House is now expected to pass the spending bill and its $1.6 billion for Mr. Trump’s promised border wall.
But the border wall, too, is controversial, so Republican leaders staged the debate so members won’t have to vote directly on its funding. Several GOP aides said leaders were concerned that such a vote could fail, delivering Mr. Trump an embarrassing defeat on one of his priorities.
On Thursday, the House voted along mostly party lines, 230-196, to begin debate on the military and veterans spending bill.
Under a maneuver set by GOP leaders, that vote has the effect of automatically adding the border money to the underlying bill. The House Rules Committee also barred consideration of any amendments related to border security or the wall.
Two GOP aides said the debate was set up this way to ensure that the controversy over the border wouldn’t jeopardize the underlying spending measure.
Rep. John Carter (R., Texas) said on the House floor Thursday that existing fencing on the border has helped to reduce illegal immigration and said the new barriers funded by the legislation would continue to improve security.
“If immigrants are crossing this border illegally, then so are drug traffickers, smugglers and human traffickers,” he said.
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D., N.Y.) and other Democrats countered by pointing to Mr. Trump’s promise that Mexico would fund the project. She said the proposal came with “nary a peso from Mexico.”
“Our nation does not barricade itself away from the rest of the world,” she said.
Still, House Democratic leaders are urging Democrats to vote against the spending bill, in part because it funds a border wall. If their efforts succeed—and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) has a reputation for keeping Democrats in line—Republicans would need to pass the legislation with only members of their own conference.
The addition of border-wall funding also complicates the path forward in the Senate, where Republicans need 60 votes to clear most legislation but control only 52 seats. Senate Democrats have said they oppose paying for the construction of a wall, which as a candidate Mr. Trump promised would be funded by Mexico.
That is on top of another, broader problem besetting the measure. Democrats are worried that Republicans will try to relax cuts imposed by a 2011 budget law for military spending without ensuring equal treatment for nonmilitary spending. Without an agreement to treat both kinds of spending equally, Senate Democrats have warned they will vote against military spending legislation.
The proposed $1.6 billion for next year would pay for a total of about 74 miles of new or replacement barriers, for an average cost of about $21 million per mile. That includes 32 miles of new border wall and 28 miles of a new levee wall in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and 14 miles of replacement secondary fencing in San Diego.
Opponents of that spending who want to vote no will also have to oppose the more popular underlying bill, which provides funding for the military and other security needs.
That includes $658.1 billion for military training and equipment; $37.6 billion for energy and water infrastructure and nuclear-weapons programs security; and $88.8 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs, including $8.4 billion for mental-health care, $50 million for opioid-abuse prevention and $65 million for modernizing the VA’s electronic health records. The bill would also increase funding for the Capitol Police, to $422.5 million.
—Benjamin Kesling and Kate Davidson contributed to this article.
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