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According to a Congressional Research Service report, the new wording means that environmental laws can’t block construction of the pedestrian fence on the border but still can block other activities, including regular Border Patrol operations and building the virtual fence of electronic surveillance.

“What we have done in this bill is prioritize the environment over the violation of our borders,” Mr. Coburn said in opposing the bill when it came through the Senate.

But Democrats defended the move on the House floor, saying the environmental laws must be obeyed.

“We were concerned that if it weren’t focused on the fence area, it could overturn the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the Native American Graves Repatriation Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Endangered Species Act, NEPA and many other laws,” said Rep. Norm Dicks, Washington Democrat. “We tried to focus this like a rifle shot.”

Mr. Bishop says he has had trouble getting accurate responses to his requests. For example, he asked Interior for the total amount of money the department had received from Homeland Security for mitigation of the effects of border enforcement, such as raking out roads or replanting plants.

Interior provided him with one figure - $811,000 since 2006, which it said had gone specifically to rehabilitate territory for the endangered Sonoran pronghorn. But Homeland Security says it has paid out $9,823,813 since September 2007 alone, including $200,000 over the course of 16 months to have a single Interior Department employee on site to provide “subject matter expertise.”

“The taxpayer is getting ripped off, that’s pretty clear,” Mr. Bishop said.

Ms. Lyder said the majority of the money went to a system being built to help the Border Patrol evaluate what threatened and endangered species might be affected by proposed actions.

As for specific mitigation money, such as the $811,000 paid to the Fish and Wildlife Service for the pronghorn, she said that was normal.

“It would not be unusual for Border Patrol to provide FWS with funding to mitigate its effects on an endangered species, such as the pronghorn, particularly if their activities would be such that the habitat disturbed is no longer suitable, and replacement habitat had to be acquired,” she said.