Less than two months after voting overwhelmingly to build 370 miles of new fencing along the border with Mexico, the Senate yesterday voted against providing funds to build it.
"We do a lot of talking. We do a lot of legislating," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican whose amendment to fund the fence was killed on a 71-29 vote. "The things we do often sound very good, but we never quite get there."
Mr. Sessions offered his amendment to authorize $1.8 billion to pay for the fencing that the Senate voted 83-16 to build along high-traffic areas of the border with Mexico. In the same vote on May 17, the Senate also directed 500 miles of vehicle barriers to be built along the border.
But the May vote simply authorized the fencing and vehicle barriers, which on Capitol Hill is a different matter from approving the federal expenditures needed to build it.
"If we never appropriate the money needed to construct these miles of fencing and vehicle barriers, those miles of fencing and vehicle barriers will never actually be constructed," Mr. Sessions told his colleagues yesterday before the vote.
Virtually all Democrats were joined by the chamber's lone independent and 28 Republicans in opposing Mr. Session's amendment to the Homeland Security Appropriations Act. Only two Democrats -- Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Thomas R. Carper of Delaware -- supported funding the fence.
All told, 34 senators -- including most of the Republican leadership -- voted in May to build the fence but yesterday opposed funding it.
The overall bill, which appropriates more than $32 billion to the Homeland Security Department, including $2.2 billion for border security and control, passed on a 100-0 vote last night.
Sen. Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican who historically has fought to increase border security and enforcement of federal immigration laws, was among those who opposed Mr. Session's amendment.
"We should build these walls; there's no question about it," he said. "But the real issue here is the offset that's being used, and the offset creates a Hobson's choice for almost everyone here."
Mr. Session's amendment would have required across-the-board cuts to the rest of the Homeland Security appropriations bill, Mr. Gregg said, which would mean cutting 750 new border-patrol agents and 1,200 new detention beds for illegal aliens that he included in the bill.
"We've attempted very hard to increase Border Patrol agents in this bill, increase detention beds," he said. "And, yes, we haven't funded the wall specifically as a result of our efforts to do these increases."
Mr. Sessions said that if his colleagues were serious about building the fence that they promised, they would find the funding.
"We will rightly be accused of not being serious about the commitments we've made to the American people with regard to actually enforcing the laws of immigration in America, which many Americans already believe we're not serious about," he said. "They don't respect what we've done in the past, and they should not. We have failed, and it's time for us to try to fix it and do better."
To prove his point, Mr. Sessions offered another amendment, which appropriated another $85.7 million to enable Homeland Security to hire 800 more full-time investigators to probe immigration-law violations. The vote against that amendment was 66-34.
Kris Kobach, who was a counsel to the attorney general under John Ashcroft, told a House subcommittee last week that one of the most unusual aspects of the Senate bill is a provision -- slipped into the more-than-800-page bill moments before the final vote -- that would require the United States to consult with the Mexican government before constructing the fencing.
"I know of no other provision in U.S. law where the federal government requires state and local governments -- every state and local government on the border -- to consult with state and local governments of a foreign power before the federal government can act," he said.
"Now, from my experience as a Justice Department official, when we had consultation requirements with the State Department, just getting two agencies in the executive branch to consult took months or years," said Mr. Kobach, now a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. "If you add this, three levels of government and a foreign power, your delay" will never end.