New estimate shows Trump's border wall could cost $66.9 billion

A section of the border fence is shown, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, along the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas. The United States does not have a way to measure how well fencing works to deter illegal crossings from Mexico, according to a report released Thursday by Congress' main watchdog as President Donald Trump renewed his pledge to build "a great wall" on the border. (Jason Hoekema/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

On Tuesday afternoon, ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Accountability Committee, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) reported on new figures she obtained from the Trump administration revealing the total cost of the U.S.-Mexico border wall could reach a whopping $66.9 billion.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump originally promised that his border wall would cost between $8 - $10 billion and would be paid for by the Mexican government. Mexican officials have repeatedly balked at the idea of paying for a wall, and from the administration's latest budget requests, it appears that the American taxpayers may find themselves footing the bill.

In a letter to the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Sen. McCaskill expressed her deep concerns about the cost of the wall after her staff received the "most information to date" about the cost and length of the proposed barrier.

"CBP officials informed majority and minority staff that the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] budget blueprint for Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 will request approximately $2.6 billion to construct fewer than 75 miles of new border barrier, resulting in a per-mile cost of over $36.6 million," McCaskill wrote. While the administration has cited lower costs in the past, she noted that "the $36.6 million per mile figure is the only information, and the closest to a cost estimate that the Committee has obtained from DHS."

Earlier on Tuesday she told Sinclair Broadcast Group that after more than a month of trying to get answers from DHS about the cost of the wall, the response she got was troubling.

"We've now learned that the amount they have request is only for 71 miles," she said. "If you do the math, we're talking about multiples of what they originally said the wall would cost."

In February and again at the beginning of March, Sen. McCaskill sent a letter to DHS requesting details about the proposed border wall be presented to the committee during a hearing. In her letter, she requested an overall cost estimate for the wall, an estimate of budget cuts to pay for the wall, an analysis of alternatives and a copy of the independent government cost estimate for the project.

According to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) documents obtained by CNN, President Trump is requesting an initial $999 million for only 62 miles of border wall to be included in the 2017 supplemental budget that must be approved by Congress by April 28. The administration's request includes 14 miles of new border wall in San Diego, 28 miles of new levee wall barriers, six miles of new border wall in the Rio Grande Valley region and 14 miles of replacement fencing in San Diego.

Earlier this month, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democratic leaders reacted to President Trump's budget request by threatening a government shutdown if border wall funds are included in the budget. In a letter to top Republicans, Schumer wrote, "We believe it would be inappropriate to insist on the inclusion of [wall] funding in a must-pass appropriations bill that is needed for the Republican majority in control of the Congress to avert a government shutdown so early in President Trump's administration."

On Tuesday, Sen. Schumer told Sinclair Broadcast Group that his previous threat still stands. "We hope that our Republican colleagues have the sense to work with us and not put it in," he said of the billion dollars of border wall funding.

Democratic opposition to Trump's border wall and his immigration enforcement activities is nothing new, but the details about the cost of the wall are turning heads on both sides of the aisle.

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) has called into question the DHS costs estimate along with Rep. William Hurd (R-Tex.). The two representatives co-chair the House subcommittee on border and maritime security.

In a March 21 letter to DHS, McSally and Hurd asked the department to justify its request for "$999 million for planning, design, and construction of the first installment of the border wall." As of Tuesday she still had not received a response from the department justifying the expense.

"I'm glad that we're focusing on border security," she said, "but we've got to be good stewards of any resources we spend and we've got to make sure we have got a strategy that works."

Among the questions she and Hurd have are whether a wall is necessary or even effective in many of the areas along the southwest border.

"We need to build our situational awareness right now," she emphasized, noting that only 54 percent of the border is monitored closely enough to detect a breach. Improving situational awareness means deploying manned and unmanned aerial assets, sensors, fixed mobile towers and more effectively deploying border patrol personnel. In some areas, she noted, walls are appropriate, in other areas technology will be more effective both in terms of cost and outcome.

"I'm focused on big picture strategy," McSally said.

Part of that big picture includes the economic impact of tougher border controls under President Trump, something she said is already impacting the economy of her district and the livelihood of some constituents.

"I'm concerned about even some of the dynamics happening. We've seen less people are coming over [the border] to shop that legitimately have visas to come over. We're hearing from our local mayors and others that they've seen a drop in even just the normal day to day cross-border commerce that happens," McSally explained.

Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.) said he will be traveling with a congressional delegation to the U.S.-Mexico border next week as part of an effort to assess what kinds of border security can be put into place, not just a physical wall.

"There may be other ways to build that wall that won't require a billion dollars," he said, specifically suggesting beefed up electronic surveillance.

On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to build a "big, beautiful wall" and assured his critics that it would be a wall, "not a fence." Would the president be breaking his promise to voters if he backed out of the wall that has been slapped with an increasingly large price tag?

"I don't know that the president is necessarily focused on building a solid wall versus securing the border," Rutherford commented, noting there could be a "surveillance wall" that accomplished the task just as well.

"I think there are other options that may be out there that would meet his promise on building a wall and we're going to look at all of those," he said.

As far as Trump's campaign pledge to make Mexico pay for the wall, some Republicans like Rep. Scott Perry still believes it can be arranged. "I think there are various mechanisms to do that," he said when asked whether Mexico will still pay for Trump's wall.

Top Senate appropriator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is entirely skeptical of Trump's promise to get Mexico to pay for the wall, which he estimates will ultimately cost the American taxpayer $25 billion. The Trump administration, he said, has basically given Congress the excuse, "don't worry the check's in the mail from Mexico," but Leahy wants to see the money before authorizing funds for the wall.

"Donald Trump has given his word that Mexico would pay for it, but I said fine get the check first and we can do it," the senator said.

The Senate Homeland Security Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on southwest border fencing on April 4. Sen. McCaskill has given the Department of Homeland Security until April 20 to respond to her request to provide additional details about their cost estimates for the border wall.

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