Border Bills Come Up Short in Congress

The Associated Press
Monday, September 25, 2006; 2:39 AM

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans have whipped through a series of bills to crack down on illegal immigration with hopes they might provide an election boost in November.

But there's wide disagreement on what they would cost and little inclination among lawmakers to come up with the money in any case.

The House has passed and the Senate is debating legislation to build 700 miles of fence on the U.S.-Mexico border with no certain idea of how much it would cost.

Estimates range from $2 billion, cited by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the appropriations subcommittee for homeland security, to $7 billion, the figure used by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Homeland Security officials told congressional aides it would cost about $5 billion. The department would not confirm that figure nor address the cost of the 107 miles of fencing already up along the nearly 2,000-mile border. The cost can vary depending on whether the government or a private contractor builds the fence.

"We're trying to figure out how much it will be, but we have been funding it," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said last week.

In a vivid demonstration of how hard it is to come up with the money, Hastert played to the cameras at a news conference by slapping red check marks on a placard to show border security accomplishments by House Republicans.

He left two items unchecked: funding for Border Patrol agents and for a Homeland Security contract for a high-tech border fence called the Secure Border Initiative.

The Senate put $1.8 billion in a Pentagon bill for 370 miles of fence plus another 500 miles of vehicle barriers. But they shifted the amount to a homeland security bill, where some of the money will pay for additional Border Patrol agents and jail space for immigrants awaiting deportation.

"We need to make sure we don't have a shell game," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who is sponsoring the money for the fencing.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said that because a 700-mile fence can't be built in a year Congress can provide just some money for it next year and the rest in the future.

Lawmakers, however, repeatedly have passed legislation ordering increases in border security without the money to pay for them.

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