After watching Republicans use immigration to attack their priorities for the past two years, Democrats are turning the table, saying congressional Republicans’ spending-cuts bill would slice money from border fencing and could scuttle much of President Obama’s Border Patrol surge.
Led by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, they charged this week that the Republicans’ 2011 spending bill that the House passed early Saturday will cut the Border Patrol force by more than 800 agents and take $272 million of fencing and other infrastructure at a time when border violence is on the rise.
“Simply put, cuts of this magnitude will be devastating to our security and our economy,” Mr. Schumer and two colleagues wrote in a letter to House leaders. “They will render us unable to secure our borders and, even worse, will reverse the progress Congress has made in reducing the flow of illegal immigration, guns, and drugs along our border.”
Republicans said Mr. Schumer was misreading the numbers and that they include enough spending to pay for the full 21,370 agents while setting an absolute low of 20,500 agents.
“The assertion that our bill is weak on border security is simply wrong,” said Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, Alabama Republican and chairman of the spending subcommittee that oversees border funding. “If anyone looks at the funding priorities, they will see that we put money into securing the border.”
The fight is the latest round in the broader sparring over 2011 spending, which has dominated Washington for weeks.
House Republicans pushed through a bill over the weekend that would cut this year’s spending by $61 billion compared with 2010 levels. After initially balking, Senate Democrats say they are now willing to entertain some cuts, but that there’s not enough time to settle on a bill before March 4, when the current funding runs out.
They have rejected Republicans’ demand that even a short-term spending bill include cuts, instead arguing for continued 2010 spending for at least another month.
“We’re proposing a short-term solution that will give us time to negotiate,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “The American people are not interested in theatrics, ultimatums or threats. They want us to work together.”
Democrats have argued that the House Republicans’ bill shortchanges government duties in areas extending from transportation to education to security — which is where the fight over border security comes in.
While they work toward a broader bill to legalize illegal immigrants, Democrats have tried to boost border security spending.
Last year, faced with escalating reports of violence and while fighting states such as Arizona that were enacting their own immigration crackdowns, Mr. Obama announced a plan to boost the U.S. Border Patrol and, in the meantime, to deploy 1,200 National Guard troops to the border to help with surveillance and infrastructure.
A bill to fund the enhancements passed with strong bipartisan support last summer.
Fast-forward to the House Republicans’ spending bill, which did cut from homeland security funding.
Mr. Schumer, joined by Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Jon Tester of Montana, said the cuts will affect the Border Patrol and fencing.
The Border Patrol didn’t return a phone message seeking comment on staffing levels or the Republicans’ bill, but Republicans said there won’t be any cuts to the level of agents and that the infrastructure cuts eliminate a program the Obama administration has said it is canceling.
The Republicans also said they are trying to encourage Washington to shift away from a simple dollar calculation, arguing that money is not always a good way to measure effectiveness.
“Throwing money at problems is not a solution,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas, whose panel has jurisdiction over immigration matters. “Even with all the money in the world, the administration would not succeed in securing the border because they are not serious about it.
Still, the turnabout on immigration is stark.
During the past few years, Republicans repeatedly charged Democrats with being soft on immigration, including accusing them of not taking adequate steps to prevent illegal immigrants from gaining access to health care funding under the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
On Tuesday, Republicans questioned whether anything had changed in what they called a weak Democratic commitment to border security.
“The administration has decreased proven worksite enforcement activities and also has denied the border states’ full request for National Guard troops,” Mr. Smith said. “With less than half the border under operational control, it is past time for the administration to get serious about securing the border and protecting the American people.”
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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