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Trump Hints At Shift On Wall Funding To Avert Government Shutdown

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump has been pushing for federal funding to start building his proposed wall on the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico. But as Congress approaches the deadline to pass a bill to fund the government and avoid a shutdown, finding that money has been a sticking point. So President Trump hinted yesterday that he might be willing to hold off on the wall for the moment, that he might take this up more forcefully in the fall.

Now, one factor - some border state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have voiced skepticism about the cost and effectiveness of the project. New Mexico Republican Congressman Steve Pearce joins us now to talk more about what's at stake. Welcome to the program.

STEVE PEARCE: Thank you. Nice to be with you.

CORNISH: President Trump today said we're already preparing. We're doing plans. We're doing specifications. We're doing a lot of work on the wall, and the wall is going to get built. But you've talked about this focus on the physical border. You don't think that's necessarily the right approach. How come?

PEARCE: Well, we just see in my district where people will go over the wall when it's built. They'll come under it. They tunnel. And they'll go through it. I have a piece of the 4-inch channel iron that - three-sixteenths of an inch thick in my - what? - Las Cruces office. It was just left there by the people cutting it down from the other side and selling it for scrap iron.

CORNISH: So you're actually picking up artifacts (laughter) from around the wall from...

PEARCE: Yes.

CORNISH: ...People getting around it.

PEARCE: Archaeological artifacts, yes.

CORNISH: So the president has requested $1.5 billion to begin work on the wall, but it sounds like he's no longer pushing for that to happen in this short-term spending bill. Does that give you breathing room to make the case to approach this differently?

PEARCE: No, not necessarily. We started this discussion way back under President Bush, continued it under President Obama. We watched President Bush pour more money and more people. Obama did the same thing. And all the time we were saying, look; we all want a secure border, but this is not going to do it. I think at the end of the day, if we're going to secure the border, it's going to be a combination of things. Different places in El Paso - Beto O'Rourke says the wall works fine.

Out in my district, I think we need a virtual wall, something that we've seen which would be much less costly but would be more secure. You could identify when people are moving towards crossing the border without approval. You just simply meet them with a couple people saying, look; this is not the proper way to go through. If you go over to El Paso, you can come in, and we'll manage that properly.

I think that's what people in New Mexico are looking for. And so to see this concentration on throwing more money at it - we've watched, again, the Bush and Obama administrations do that, and the border's never been any more secure after the expenditure of money. And so it's just kind of a pragmatic discussion, saying, let's look around before we just commit to this structure.

CORNISH: You sound wary and frustrated to still be having this discussion again with yet a new administration.

PEARCE: Well, it's - yeah, it's a long-term discussion, and it's not one that the elections revolve around, frankly. The Hispanics in the district want a secure border, too. They - many of them have come from Mexico. They're a little bit frustrated that people are able to come here when it took them maybe 10 years to get here legally. And now people are just crossing randomly back and forth. So the Hispanic community knows that they would like a secure border. I would, too. And so Washington - this whole centralized force is a force to contend with.

CORNISH: What's your response to Democrats who are saying that the cost of this wall is going to fall to taxpayers and not to Mexico? I mean what have you heard from this White House or other Republican leadership about another source of funding?

PEARCE: Well, I don't kind of worry too much about that. We'll find the funding, and then it's up to President Trump. He has shown a real tenacity on following through. If he thinks Mexico should make contributions - and that's between him and them. And I mean you can tell just on the whole trade discussions that he won't leave the American taxpayer hanging. I'd just trust that. Of all the things I might doubt, that is not in doubt.

CORNISH: And a very quick question - do you foresee a government shutdown if the wall's taken out of the equation?

PEARCE: No, I don't see that. The budget is far bigger than one simple item, and so I don't think that people will withhold support for that reason.

CORNISH: Congressman Steve Pearce, a Republican from New Mexico, thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

PEARCE: Audie, thanks. Always nice talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RJD2'S "WHEN IT WOBBLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.