SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — President Bush yesterday signed into law the annual homeland-security spending bill that provides the first down payment for 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The $33.8 billion spending measure boosts the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents to 14,800, funds 27,500 detention beds for illegal aliens, or an increase of 6,700, and includes $1.2 billion for a fence, vehicle barriers and other infrastructure.
“It’s what the people of this country want — they want to know that we’re modernizing the border so we can better secure the border,” Mr. Bush said as he signed the bill in Scottsdale before a bipartisan group of elected officials in Arizona.
While the bill funds hundreds of programs, including transportation and port security, it has become a key symbol of the debate over illegal entry into the U.S.
Mr. Bush took time in his remarks to press for a broad immigration bill — he advocates legalization of most illegal aliens as well as a new temporary-worker program. But Republicans fighting for re-election this year called the bill “a great victory” for enforcement first, a position Mr. Bush had opposed.
“As a result of this signature today, it puts in place funding for the first steps, really, of enforcement first,” said Rep. J.D. Hayworth, Arizona Republican, who joined Mr. Bush for the ceremony.
Still to come is Mr. Bush’s signature on a bill to build 700 miles of fencing along the border, which House Republicans authored and pushed through Congress. The president has said he will sign that bill, too, though an aide yesterday said it’s unlikely he will have a public signing ceremony.
There is no official estimate of the cost of that bill. Republican backers said the 700 miles would cost about $2 billion, while Democratic opponents said the cost could be $9 billion.
Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said yesterday’s down payment will build roughly 150 miles of fence, as well as vehicle barriers and other infrastructure. Mr. Kyl was the sponsor of the Senate’s fence proposal, which called for 371 miles of fencing, and said the Homeland Security secretary told him they could complete that length within three years.
Before signing the bill, Mr. Bush campaigned for Rep. Rick Renzi, Arizona Republican, and, later in the day flew to Colorado to campaign for Rep. Bob Beauprez, who is running for governor there.
In both places the president repeated his charge that Democrats have tried to block key tools in the war on terrorism, from the CIA interrogation program to the National Security Agency wiretaps.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Mr. Bush was just “ranting and raving.”
“The American people are tired of the president’s empty tough talk,” Mr. Reid said. “They want leaders who are tough and smart.”
On the spending bill, the Democratic National Committee said Mr. Bush has not made homeland security a “real priority,” citing places where funding has fallen short of Democrats’ goals.
But their argument was undercut somewhat by the presence of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, at yesterday’s signing ceremony.
She joined Mr. Hayworth, Mr. Renzi, Rep. Trent Franks and Mr. Kyl — even though both Mr. Hayworth and Mr. Kyl face stiff re-election challenges from Miss Napolitano’s own Democrats.
Interest groups are now begging Mr. Bush not to sign the fence bill, saying it would show Mr. Bush has changed his position.
“For years, President Bush has supported a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. Yet now he is considering signing an enforcement-only bill into law with no comprehensive immigration reform on the horizon,” said the National Council of La Raza, which advocates for Hispanics’ and illegal aliens’ rights.
The homeland security spending bill covers fiscal year 2007, which began Oct. 1.
It is $2.3 billion more than the 2006 measure, and $2.1 billion of that increase goes to immigration and border security.
In passing the bill, Congress directed that the administration come back within 60 days with a plan for how to spend the border-infrastructure money.
In a report accompanying the bill Congress said it would withholding $950 million of the money until that plan is approved. But Mr. Bush, in a statement accompanying his signature, said that intrudes on executive powers and he will ignore that requirement and treat it as a request for notification.
The bill passed by voice vote in the Senate, and 412-6 in the House.
One of those opponents in the House was Rep. John Hostettler, Indiana Republican, who was disappointed the bill delays the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. That program, which was designed to increase security at ports of entry by requiring U.S. citizens and visitors alike to show a passport when crossing into the country, now goes into effect June 1, 2009, or 17 months later than planned.