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In Border Fence's Path, Congressional Roadblocks

Three boys in Mexico run toward the fence that marks the U.S. border near El Paso. On the other side is a field where children often play soccer.
Three boys in Mexico run toward the fence that marks the U.S. border near El Paso. On the other side is a field where children often play soccer. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

Congress withheld $950 million of the $1.2 billion, pending a breakdown by Chertoff of how he plans to spend the money. It is due in early December, after the midterm elections.

Asked whether Homeland Security would build 700 miles of fence, department spokesman Russ Knocke would not say. Instead, he noted that department leaders announced last month that they will spend $67 million to test a remote-sensing "virtual fence" concept on a 28-mile, high-traffic stretch of border south of Tucson over eight months, and then adjust their plans.

"We plan to build a little and test a little. . . . Stay tuned," Knocke said. "We're optimistic that Congress is going to provide the department with flexibility."

The split between GOP leaders hungry for a sound-bite-friendly accomplishment targeting immigration and others who support a more comprehensive approach also means that the fence bill will be watered down when lawmakers return for a lame-duck session in November, according to congressional aides and lobbyists.

The office of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) yesterday released a letter from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) promising to ensure that Chertoff has discretion over whether to build a fence or choose other options. Homeland Security officials must also consult with U.S., state and local representatives on where structures are placed.

The letter was inserted in the Congressional Record on Friday night because Congress ran out of time to reach a final deal, aides said.

"State and local officials in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas should not be excluded from decisions about how to best protect our borders with their varying topography, population and geography," Hutchison said in a statement added to the record.

Congress also hedged on when a fence would be completed. The law mandating it said Homeland Security officials should gain "operational control" of the border in 18 months. But the law funding it envisions five years. Chertoff has set a goal of two to three years, but only after completion of an immigration overhaul.

Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.


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