WASHINGTON — House conservatives said Wednesday they’re happy to help President-elect Donald Trump build a wall on the Mexican border, but he’ll have to find a way to pay for it.
“There’s a lot of support for it,” said Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. But “everything needs to be fully funded,” he said.
The wall, one of Trump’s central promises in the campaign, is expected to cost billions of dollars, and the president-elect has said he’s open to using fencing for parts of it. During the campaign, Trump frequently said Mexico would pay for the wall, but Mexico has rejected that notion and it’s unclear whether Trump would propose cuts or new fees to offset the cost of the wall.
Taken together with his promise to bolster the military and not cut Social Security or Medicare, that leaves little room in the budget and foreshadows tension with anti-spending congressional Republicans. Trump is also running into congressional headwinds over the right tactics for repealing and replacing Obamacare.
But the emerging fiscal split foreshadows tension between Trump’s grand ambitions and House conservatives, who have spent the past several years enforcing strict budget caps on discretionary spending.
Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina said he’s open to the idea of a wall, but said “the devil will be in the details” because the national debt is “the greatest challenge to our country.”
“I am a deficit hawk and I will look very closely at offsets as it relates to border security, infrastructure, defense, you name the subject,” he said.
Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky said it would be “a very dangerous thing, especially for our conservative base,” for Congress to authorize new spending financed by borrowing. “The deficit is just too huge right now.”
The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said he supports “tactical infrastructure” on the U.S.-Mexico border, such as fencing or a wall, but also insisted that it be paid for.
“We keep spending other people’s money and we’ve got $19 trillion in debt. I’m very concerned about how we pay for stuff like that,” he told reporters Wednesday.
The budget deficit in fiscal 2016, which ended Sept. 30, is $587 billion, falling by more than half since President Barack Obama’s first year in office. Republicans in Congress have thwarted many of Obama’s initiatives while hewing to their anti-tax, anti-spending agenda.
Labrador said a wall could mean different things.
Border Patrol agents “realize that every sector down on the border needs different support, needs different tools,” he said. “Some areas you’ll need actual barriers. In other areas you’re going to need electronic fences. In other areas, you’re going to need something else.”
The deficit concerns could also impact Trump’s proposal to spend more than $500 billion on infrastructure, which he said would be financed at least in part by new borrowing. In his victory speech, the Republican president-elect said that rebuilding America’s roads and bridges would be his priority — “second to none.” Unlike a border wall, on which Democrats have signaled strong disagreement, Trump may get some bipartisan cooperation on infrastructure spending.
Outside the conservative wing, it’s unclear whether Republican demands to offset spending will be as robust under Trump as they have been under Obama. Many mainstream figures in the party, including current House Speaker Paul Ryan, were less concerned about increasing the deficit under George W. Bush, the last Republican president.
Having a Republican in the White House could also change the dynamic on the looming debt limit fight. Conservatives had been opposed to any debt limit increases under Obama, but may prove more flexible with Trump in the White House.
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House conservatives also signaled a disagreement with Trump on how to go about addressing Obamacare. Unlike the Republican president-elect, who wants to undo and replace the law simultaneously, some Republicans called for immediate passage of legislation to repeal it, perhaps with a delayed enactment until the end of 2017, and replacing it at a later date.
“It should be two separate bills. I don’t think it should be done at the same time,” said Labrador. “Repeal is the easy part.”
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio said Obamacare should be repealed “as quickly as we possibly can” and Congress can worry about a replacement later.
That goes against Trump’s preference that repealing and replacing Obamacare occur together in order to address the roughly 20 million Americans who have insurance coverage under the law.
“We’re going to do it simultaneously,” Trump said Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes” program. “It’ll be just fine. We’re not going to have, like, a two-day period and we’re not going to have a two-year period where there’s nothing.”
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