House Border-Control Bill Gains Backers

Jul 24, 2013

Proposal Calls for Creating a Plan Before Spending Billions
WASHINGTON—A bill that takes a different tack on beefing up border security by not committing billions of dollars up front is gaining bipartisan support in Congress.

Lawmakers from both parties on Tuesday praised a bill approved by the House Homeland Security Committee more than two months ago. It would require the government to first develop a plan for gaining control of the Southern border within five years that would apprehend at least 90% of all illegal crossing attempts.

Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas), a vocal critic of border-security provisions in the Senate's much broader immigration bill, said it was a smarter approach. "It doesn't just throw money at the problem," said Mr. Cornyn, testifying at a House hearing.

The "border surge" amendment included in the Senate bill approved last month would hire at least 19,200 new border agents, require 700 total completed miles of border fencing and cost $46 billion.

However, other provisions of the Senate bill are projected to generate enough revenue to more than offset that cost. The broad bill would shave $135 billion from the federal budget deficit over a decade by raising additional tax revenue from immigrants and collecting fees from businesses.

The House bill would spend no money up front and calls for both the creation of a new border strategy and new metrics for measuring progress.

"The House bill takes a page from the private sector and demands a strategy before we approve a budget," House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R., Texas) said.

The "border surge" amendment from Sens. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) and Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) was instrumental in building support for the wider bill among the Senate GOP. But Democrats and Republicans alike since have balked at the cost of the Senate strategy, and some say it might not work.

"Just spending additional resources without a strategy to secure the border or means to hold DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] accountable for a result creates conditions that are ripe for waste," Rep. Candice Miller (R., Mich.) said.

The House bill is supported by many Democrats representing border districts, who worry that the Senate "border surge" might constrict U.S. trade with Mexico, and that it unfairly paints their districts as hotbeds of violence.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of five House Democrats representing Texas border districts, said the House plan "is a little bit more sensible than the Corker approach."

Democrats cautioned that they could support the House border-security bill only if it is included in a broader immigration package that includes a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already living in the U.S., a revamped guest-worker program and other changes. House Republicans plan to take up immigration changes piece by piece.

House Republicans haven't introduced a citizenship bill yet, although a separate committee on Tuesday debated citizenship for those brought to the country as children. House GOP lawmakers have said they want to move first to strengthen the border to reduce the flow of illegal immigration before turning to other provisions.

Some voters may be skeptical of that strategy. In a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 59% of those surveyed said the Republican approach on border security was an "excuse to block reform," while 36% considered it a "legitimate concern."

If the House were to approve its border-security bill, it appears poised to gain fans in the Senate, even among those instrumental in crafting the "border surge" measure. Mr. Corker said he wasn't wedded to the specific actions detailed in his border-security amendment. "If there's a better way of dealing with it, I'm open to it," he said.

Senate Democrats aren't likely to object to the House measure, which closely resembles the original Senate plan crafted by the "Gang of Eight" lawmakers—so long as it is part of a broader immigration overhaul, a Senate Democratic aide said.

The full House isn't expected to vote on any immigration bills before Congress leaves for its August break.

A bipartisan clutch of House lawmakers separately are working on a broad immigration bill, which includes the bill from Mr. McCaul's committee, said one of the group's members, Rep. John Carter (R., Texas). But it isn't clear whether the group will produce a plan that could win favor in that chamber.