Analysis: Mixed signals from Congress on Trump’s border wall plan

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U.S. President Donald Trump pauses as he announces his decision that the United States will withdraw from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Files

WASHINGTON – Mexico won’t pay for it. Border-state Republicans don’t want it. Senate Democrats say they’ll block any spending bill that includes a dime for it. Conservative Republicans are likely to balk at the price tag.

Funding President Donald Trump’s border wall could go south quickly for Republicans and create a whole host of political headaches for a party already struggling to make good on some of its long-held campaign promises.

So why is House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., so excited about this wall that his office released a video from his trip to the Rio Grande Valley featuring horses, helicopters, boats and techno music to sell it?

Ryan is the king of budget belt-tightening, so why does he want to spend untold billions of taxpayer money to build a border wall? Answer: He probably really doesn’t.

“Messaging,” said Steve Bell, a former top GOP Senate budget aide now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, explaining why he thinks Ryan made that video. “I think they want to be able to go back home, having to face voters in 2018, and say, ‘I voted for the wall.'”

Republicans want to tell their base they voted for it, but very few in Congress think taxpayers should actually be on the hook for it. If Congress pays for the full wall – or even part of it – it would blow up a spiking deficit, divide the Republican Party, threaten a government shutdown this fall, and hand Democrats an attack line that Republicans are breaking a campaign promise to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.

“This would be a huge and ridiculous overreach by Republicans,” nonpartisan budget expert Stan Collender told The Washington Post in January.

Almost no one but Trump wants a complete wall anyway. Ryan talks more about “securing the border” than a brick-and-mortar barrier, conspicuously leaving the wall’s role in securing the border open to interpretation.

But this isn’t just talk. The House voted last week on $1.6 billion in start-up money for Trump’s border wall, though there were a couple of caveats:

On that last point, Senate Democrats will not hesitate to filibuster Trump’s central campaign promise. “We will not build a stupid wall,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., yelled to cheering supporters after Trump’s inauguration.

And Senate Republicans don’t seem particularly keen on the idea, either. “I’ve always thought the wall was a metaphor for securing the border,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which would debate a wall, told CNN in April.

Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, doesn’t think a physical wall alone would solve the immigration problem. “A physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job,” he told Congress in his January confirmation hearing to be homeland security secretary.

Pretending you want something that you don’t actually want isn’t a new game in Congress.

In May, Republicans in the House voted for an unpopular health-care repeal bill after leaders promised that it would be improved on by the Senate.

Senators did a similar thing. Hours before Senate Republicans’ last attempt to pass a version of the House bill, GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Johnson held a news conference and said they would vote for it only if they were guaranteed that it wouldn’t become law.

Head-spinning, I know.

“These are called free votes,” Bell said. “I’ve had these conversations. The member turns to their chief of staff and says: ‘Here’s this wall. It’s pretty popular back home, isn’t it?’ And the chief of staff says, ‘Yeah.’ And the member says, ‘Well, I’m just going to vote ‘aye’ for it, and I don’t think it’s a big gamble, because it’s never going to become law.'”

It’s very likely that’s the spirit of the conversations Ryan is having with House Republicans as he folds border wall funding into a spending bill and urges the Senate to do the same. But instead of just voting “aye,” Ryan is trying to make his desire for the wall a lot more convincing by riding horses and helicopters at the border and producing slick videos about it.

At least, that’s a much more likely scenario than Republicans actually wanting to spend $25 billion on a border wall that Mexico will probably never pay for.

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