Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Rep. Duncan Hunter has a name for people like the congressional researchers who recently determined that the fence he proposes to build along the southern border could cost about 25 times the roughly $2 billion he estimated.

“I call them the ‘Mission Impossible’ crowd,” the California Republican said, referring to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and others who predict that the fence will cost nearly $50 billion.

As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mr. Hunter authored legislation in the last Congress to build 850 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.

He might lump into that crowd Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, who yesterday expressed his own skepticism about the fence.

“I think the fence will be revisited,” he told reporters gathered in his office for a weekly briefing. “The appropriators will look at whether or not this is an expenditure that continues to make sense.”

Like Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and most other members of the Democratic House leadership, Mr. Hoyer opposed the legislation to build the fence.

President Bush might fall into that group as well. The administration, Mr. Hoyer noted yesterday, “has not been enthusiastic” about implementing the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

When Mr. Hunter first floated the bill, it was widely attacked as hateful and un-American. Democrats and liberals tarred him and its supporters as “anti-immigrant.”

But by last fall, as members of both parties began to grasp the depth of outrage among voters about illegal entry, the proposal sailed through both chambers.

The House voted 283-138 to build the fence, and the Senate, which has been much more lenient toward illegal aliens, approved it by a vote of 80-19.

“The American people want this fence,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican. “They want us to secure our borders.”

Mr. Hoyer agreed with that ultimate goal.

“The objective would be, as we move forward, to secure the border,” he said, but “there has not been agreement that the fence is the best way to do it.”

Supporters point to the success of the fence that runs through San Diego and hope that by extending it through other high-traffic areas they will curb illegal entry as well as halt the drug trade across the border.

Mr. Hunter said government analysts and outside interest groups have grossly inflated estimates for a fence that he said will cost between $2 billion and $3 billion. He and Mr. King produced three estimates provided by a trade group and two construction companies vying for the job.

Douglas E. Barnhart Inc., a California-based construction firm, estimated $2.6 million per mile, or roughly $2.3 billion. Alabama Metal Industries Corp. estimated the work would cost $2.5 million per mile, or about $2.1 billion.

The fence consists of two security fences with a road in between for Border Patrol vehicles. The Chain Link Fence Manufacturers Institute provided an estimate of $1.3 million per mile of heavy industrial chain-link fence that is 12 feet high with an 11-foot overhang, much like the backstop on a baseball diamond.

“If we had a secure border, you could pay for the entire border fence in one year with the money you save by not having to incarcerate these criminal aliens,” Mr. Hunter said.

Added Mr. King, who was in the construction business before serving in Congress: “We are now paying $8 billion a year on the southern border as it is. That’s $4 million per mile and we’re not stopping anybody.”

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