Democratic leaders looked at the new spending bill Thursday and crowed, saying they managed to block nearly all of President Trump’s immigration plans. Conservatives agreed, saying the bill betrayed the president’s border security promises.
But the White House insists the bill is actually a major win for Mr. Trump on immigration, delivering a massive start to his border wall — and immigrant-rights activists agreed, saying it was Democrats who caved by agreeing to the bill.
The “omnibus” spending bill totals a record $1.3 trillion and runs to more than 3,100 pages of legislative text and congressional reports.
All of it’s in black-and-white. And yet nobody seems to agree on what’s in the darn thing.
Some conservatives complained that the bill funds Planned Parenthood. Not so, said GOP leaders, who said it actually leaves that decision in Mr. Trump’s hands.
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The White House budget director said the bill will fund 110 miles of new border wall. Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill said the number is actually about 95 miles, and said of that only 33 miles will be along portions of the border that don’t have a fence right now. The rest will be replacement fencing.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, Democrats’ floor leader, said the legislation paves the way for federal taxpayers to share costs for the Gateway tunnel project between New Jersey and New York. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said it did no such thing, again saying that decision will largely belong to Mr. Trump.
Mr. Ryan acknowledged there was “lots of misinformation or confusion surrounding a bill like this,” and said it was one reason he personally went to brief the president on Wednesday, letting him know what was in the final deal.
Mr. Trump said he “got $1.6 billion to start wall on southern border.”
But Democrats said what Mr. Trump really got was 33 miles of fencing — or only about half of the 60 miles he’d sought. And they said it will be a fence, not a wall, thanks to new limits they wrote into the bill preventing the president from using the designs he had built as part of his border wall competition.
“The bill includes language requiring the Department of Homeland Security to use proven fence designs that currently exist on the border, instead of allowing the president to build a 30-foot concrete wall,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
He and fellow Democrats also managed to block any funding for 500 additional Border Patrol agents or 1,000 new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation officers — who were supposed to be the bulk of Mr. Trump’s vaunted “deportation force.”
Instead, the bill calls for additional ICE agents — who focus more on investigations than deportations — and for 328 Customs and Border Protection officers, who staff the ports of entry rather than patrol for people trying to sneak in along the borders.
ICE will have to cut the number of detention beds used to hold immigrants awaiting deportation down from the current level of 40,761. But whether that’s cut to 40,354, as Democrats said, or 40,520 beds, as the GOP predicted, is unclear.
What is clear, say enforcement advocates, is Mr. Trump didn’t get very much of what he wanted.
“It’s almost like President Obama is still president,” said Rosemary Jenks, government relations manager for NumbersUSA. “The Republicans did not get a single win on immigration, Trump’s top priority.”
Congressional Democratic leaders agreed, though they celebrated that outcome.
“The bill rejects the administration’s demands for a border wall, a larger deportation force, and more detention beds,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, made up entirely of Democrats, disagreed with her.
“The CHC cannot support this spending bill as it would fund Trump’s border wall and mass deportation force,” the caucus said in urging opposition.
Gregory Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the biggest problem with the bill is it didn’t do anything to provide a more permanent solution for illegal immigrant “Dreamers” currently protected by the Obama-era DACA program.
“How could our Congress and the president put that much more money into enforcement and detention without protecting the Dreamers, many of whom are being targeted with those exact enforcement dollars?” he said.
The White House insisted it tried.
Budget director Mick Mulvaney said they made multiple offers, including proposing three years of protections for Dreamers in exchange for three years of wall funding. Just a week ago, the White House had insisted to reporters it vehemently opposed that plan.
Marc Short, the White House’s chief liaison to Congress, said Thursday that Democrats proved they didn’t want to help Dreamers by rejecting their offers.
“The Democrats have shut down each and every one of those conversations throughout the omnibus, because they appreciate this is a political weapon,” he said. “They do not want a solution to this problem.”
On the Gateway tunnel project, Republicans insisted they’d given Mr. Trump “more discretion” to refuse to dole out much of the cash.
Mr. Ryan said he also expected other cities such as Chicago or Philadelphia to be able to compete for the money, too.
But Mr. Schumer seemed confident it’ll end up in New York.
Mr. Schumer said the bill allocates $380 million to Amtrak for capital improvements in the northeast, and the Gateway project is Amtrak’s top capital priority, so it should get that money. He said there’s an additional $125 million for New Jersey and New York governors to spend, and Mr. Schumer said they’ve assured him they’ll fund the gateway.
Mr. Schumer was so pleased with the bill that he wondered aloud at how Democrats, who control none of the political levers of Washington, had managed to do so well.
“It’s a funny thing,” he said. “We’re able to accomplish more in the minority than we were when we had the presidency or even were in the majority.”