Congress yesterday sent the bill to build 700 miles of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border to President Bush, who will sign it in a ceremony Thursday morning in the White House Roosevelt Room.
The decision to have a public ceremony is a reversal for the Bush administration, which had appeared reluctant to tie itself so publicly to the enforcement-only measure. Although Mr. Bush had committed to signing the bill, aides had said consistently over the past few weeks there would not be a signing ceremony.
But Republicans in Congress had demanded a public signing, with leaders saying the bill is a major accomplishment that will help their re-election prospects.
“The American people demand a secure border, and this Republican Congress has responded to the American people’s demand for a secure border by increasing the physical barriers and infrastructure along the border and by providing state of the art monitoring technology,” House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said in a joint statement trumpeting the bill’s official transmission yesterday morning.
They had held onto the bill in order to guarantee Mr. Bush’s signature closer to the election, when it would have the biggest impact. Aides said they were also holding out for a signing ceremony, to use the presidential pulpit for maximum attention.
By yesterday evening, several congressional offices said they received invitations to a signing ceremony on Thursday at the White House, and House Republicans said the bill signing is vindication for their enforcement-only approach.
“For all those people who spoke disparagingly of the hearings that were held over the summer on border security, this bill represents a victory — both a grass-roots victory and a public relations victory — for the Congress,” said one House Republican leadership aide.
The double-layer, reinforced fence has been a point of contention between the White House and Republicans in Congress. Mr. Bush had pushed for a broad immigration bill that offered a guest-worker plan and citizenship rights for most illegal aliens, in addition to increased enforcement.
The Department of Homeland Security has questioned the value of that much fencing, and the administration argues that only about 370 miles of fencing is needed on the 2,000-mile-long border. Officials say the rest can be covered through ground radar, sensors and increased manpower.
“You talk to the members of Congress about the 700 miles, and there’s not a single member who can give you a plausible explanation of how they arrived at 700 miles,” a senior administration official told The Washington Times last week. “We’ll build every mile of fence that is useful and necessary to build, and if they tell us to build 700, we’ll find a way to build 700 miles of fence, but let’s not kid ourselves.”
The White House official said last week there wouldn’t be a big public signing ceremony. In Arizona earlier this month, Mr. Bush signed the 2007 homeland security spending bill, which includes a down payment for some fencing as well as increases in the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents and detention beds to hold illegal aliens awaiting deportation.
Congressional Republicans, including Mr. Frist and Mr. Hastert, say the bill is a key dividing point between Republicans and Democrats — one voters should remember at the polls next month.
“Democrat leader [Nancy] Pelosi voted against the Secure Fence Act because she has never been to the border to understand that it is a national security emergency. The Democrat leadership must think that border security is about adding more security guards at Borders Book Stores,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Mr. Hastert.