After two solid years of fighting it, congressional Republicans may now be prepared to fund President Trump’s border wall after all.
On Monday, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) promised “a big fight” over Trump’s wall when the House returns to work in December, telling reporters, “we have a commitment to go fight for securing the border . . . and we’re going to be looking at doing that.”
A day later, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) broke the news—at Breitbart of all places—that he intends to introduce legislation to fully fund the president’s wall, crack down on sanctuary cities, and enforce stronger enforcement at the border. Not to be outdone, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the Associated Press “we are committed to helping the president get wall funding.”
Did anyone else just hear the record scratch, see the frame freeze, and wonder “who . . . who are these people?”
It was only four months ago that Ryan and McCarthy were putting legislation on the floor to provide amnesty to 1.8 million illegal aliens. In February, McConnell was orchestrating a series of immigration votes that were all designed to fail. In March, Congress grudgingly provided $1.6 billion for the border—but expressly limited that money from being used on any new construction, or on a concrete wall.
This recent about-face on the border is certainly welcome, but begs the obvious question: is this a genuine effort to secure wall funding, or a more cynical maneuver designed to shore up credibility days before an election?
Time will tell, particularly in the House. McCarthy’s renewed commitment to the wall has emerged against the backdrop of his ongoing efforts to replace Ryan as speaker of the House. Importantly, he has a need to burnish his image with the right wing of the party against his decidedly more conservative opponent, House Freedom Caucus founder Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
But, as McCarthy is undoubtedly aware, a significant gap exists between introducing a bill to fund the wall and actually taking the steps to do it. Voters—as well as members of Congress—will be watching to see if it’s a leap McCarthy is willing to take.
McCarthy’s legislation, should it pass, would simply authorize the wall; that is, provide the legal authority to build, but not the funds necessary to accomplish it. Critically, the only legislation that could fund wall construction is the spending bill that Congress will address on or around December 7.
In other words, if McCarthy is making a serious effort—not just a rhetorical one—he will insist the December funding bill contain the money necessary to build Trump’s border wall. The “big fight” that Ryan promised should only be about what ends up in the spending legislation. Otherwise it’s not a fight worth having.
Why December Makes Sense
This remains true even if the majority in Congress flips. An impending Democratic takeover in January should only motivate Republicans to use the remaining days of their majority to go to the mattresses, in alliance with the president, over the last chance to push their priorities through.
A Republican majority that survives through November would be further resolved to deliver on critical policies they’ve spent years promising to enact.
Either way, what happens in December will tell us what the current Republican leadership in the House prioritizes—rhetoric, or results. It’s also why the calls from House conservatives to move the date of the speaker’s election from November to December are a smart strategy.
Historically, the speaker’s race takes place immediately post-election, when members return to session in November. But with so much riding on what happens in the December funding fight, it makes sense to wait.
For the last two years, House Republicans have been frustrated as their leadership remains content to allow the Senate to call the shots, unwilling to engage openly in favor of their own priorities. (Or, for that matter, their own bills. Nearly 600 House bills are languishing in the Senate, waiting for action.)
Under Ryan and McCarthy’s tenure, the House’s priorities have been made largely subordinate to those of the Senate. Look no further than at the substance of the spending bills which have been signed into law. Nearly all of them reflect the Senate’s priorities, and very little of what the House has passed. Even during the Obamacare repeal battle in 2017, Ryan took to parroting the Senate’s procedure as an excuse for House inaction on key issues. He was wrong, as it turned out.
A wall funding fight in December, ahead of a speaker’s election, will give each candidate a chance to prove their mettle; to assert themselves with their colleagues, with Democrats, and with the Senate. It will be a proving ground, in some sense, for who is positioned most effectively to lead House Republicans into the next Congress.
Moreover, it will force action behind the promises and legislation that, while helpful, still remain only gestures.
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