As Congress and Trump eye a potential government shutdown over border wall funding, a Democratic congressman from Laredo has drawn up a last-minute play to save a Texas state park, a butterfly preserve and a 120-year-old chapel.
“First of all, we don’t want a wall,” U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar told the Observer Tuesday. “But if it comes to that, then we are suggesting that no funds can be used for barrier along the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the National Butterfly Center and the La Lomita Historical Park.”
The three sites, all near the town of Mission in the Rio Grande Valley, are high on the government’s list for wall construction. The feds plan to use money that Congress provided back in March to pay for wall in that area. Construction is scheduled to start at Bentsen and the butterfly center in February, and the La Lomita chapel, a state historical landmark, has only a tad more breathing room. But Cuellar said he hopes adding protections for the three sites to this month’s controversial spending legislation will force the Trump administration to build around the properties.
The wall funding battle has been volatile and hard to predict. Just last week, Trump was insisting on $5 billion, a position the White House walked back on Tuesday. Late last month, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was ready to give Trump $1.6 billion or more for his wall and call it a win. But after pushback from Cuellar and other Democrats, Schumer seemed to adopt a more hardline stance against wall funding. At this point, even high-ranking Republicans like Senator John Cornyn are telling the press they don’t know what the hell is going to happen.
Cuellar said he’s talked to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other senior Democrats who’ve promised to fight for language protecting the three sites in any compromise legislation that may emerge in the next few days. He thinks that despite being in the minority, House Democrats have leverage. “If Republicans had the votes, they would’ve put the $5 billion on the floor already, but they haven’t,” he said, adding that some Republicans who lost re-election in November haven’t been showing up to work.
Cuellar said that he arranged a conference call this month between Border Patrol and Texas Parks and Wildlife to encourage Border Patrol to abandon its plans for a wall through Bentsen, or at least modify the structure’s design — as the Texas parks agency has suggested for months.
It’s not the first time Cuellar has bargained for a similar deal. In March, when Congress passed $641 million in funding for 33 miles of wall in the Rio Grande Valley, he helped pass language that excluded the 2,088-acre Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, federally protected habitat for the endangered ocelot and Gulf Coast jaguarundi that nonetheless was the government’s first choice for new wall construction. Cuellar has also played a role in keeping border wall away from his hometown of Laredo over the past decade.
Still, Cuellar admitted that he’s a secondary player in the government shutdown drama. “A lot of it is above everybody’s payscale,” he said. “It’s up to the four corners: Ryan, Pelosi, McConnell and Schumer.”
Congressman Filemon Vela, a Brownsville Democrat, also told the Austin American-Statesman that he’s hoping to exempt Elon Musk’s SpaceX project — a spaceport under construction near Brownsville — from any new border wall.