Biden using southern border budget to combat key weak spot

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The White House has been hitting back on Republicans about security at the southern border, touting the administration’s budget proposal as a way in on an issue that has been a major weak spot for President Biden.

The White House has been using the House Freedom Caucus budget, and the cuts that their proposal could lead to, to go on the offensive about the politically-charged topic of an influx of migrants at the southern border.

Biden claims his budget will make the southern border more secure – a notion opposite of that often levied by Republicans who blame border issues for drugs and crime in the U.S.

The president cites increased funding in his fiscal plan as a way to get those problems under control while the White House argues that the far-right Freedom Caucus’ proposal would worsen the situation because it would eliminate funding for more than 2,000 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and officers.

With fewer agents, the White House says an additional 150,000 pounds of cocaine, nearly 900 pounds of fentanyl, nearly 2,000 pounds of heroin, and more than 17,000 pounds of methamphetamine could enter into the U.S.

In doing so, Biden is trying to turn the tables on the notion that he is to blame for the drugs reaching Americans, especially children, as some conservative Republicans have suggested.

That tension was on display last month when Biden called out Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) by name after she openly accused the Biden administration of causing the death of a Michigan mother’s sons because fentanyl came across the southern border.

The president later was called out by the mother, Rebecca Kiessling, because he chuckled in a speech when he sarcastically brought up Greene’s remarks and noted that her sons’ deaths had actually occurred during  the Trump administration.  Kiessling called for Biden to apologize, while the White House said Biden’s words were being mischaracterized.

Other Republicans also regularly hammer Biden about fentanyl coming over the border, as well as other opioids, having used the issue of drugs coming into the U.S. with migrants as a major topic during the 2022 midterm elections. Since then, conservative Republicans especially have stepped up criticism and used their new House GOP majority to put a spotlight on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Biden, in his State of the Union address last month, tried to make fentanyl coming into the U.S. an issue to be tackled by lawmakers, calling for Congress to pass immigration reform legislation and saying that immigration should be a bipartisan issue “like it was before.”

In the president’s $6.8 trillion fiscal 2024 budget, he included $40 million to combat fentanyl trafficking and disrupt transnational criminal organizations. He also included funds to hire an additional 460 processing assistants at CBP, as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Republicans, however, don’t see it as a good strategy for the administration, in the midst of a migrant influx, to tout any sort of success given the Biden administration’s issues with addressing the southern border head on in the last two years.

“The president has had two years to try and tackle the situation on the border and I would say it has only gotten worse,” said Stephen Cote, a principal at Mehlman Consulting and former director for legislative affairs at the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush. “Democrats are trying to play defense two years out from the next election.”

Biden’s budget also includes funds for CBP to hire an additional 350 Border Patrol Agents and $535 million for border technology at and between ports of entry. The proposal is an increase from the $15.3 billion Biden proposed for CBP in his fiscal 2023 budget.

Meanwhile, Democrats argue that it’s smart for the White House to highlight funding for border security in the budget because it targets voters who could be swayed ahead of November 2024.

“For voters that get motivated by the ‘Biden and Democrats are weak on the border,’ there is no turning those folks around. They would vote against him and Dem candidates, even if there were zero crossing for a year,” said Ivan Zapien, a former Democratic National Committee official. “He is going after folks that want to hear he has plan, gets there is a problem, and is offering a solution. There is a block of voters that can be moved by this message.”

The White House has spent this week declaring a “five-alarm fire” to describe the Freedom Caucus’s proposal overall, arguing it would be “a disaster for families in at least five key ways,” including endangering public safety through not securing the border and through being too lax on crime, another topic that is a frequent GOP rallying cry with the party often highlighting crime rates in Democratic-run cities.

The Freedom Caucus is pushing to restrict discretionary funding for fiscal 2024 at the 2022 threshold, while keeping defense funding at current levels, in order to balance the federal budget in 10 years — the latter of which is a key goal of theirs.

The White House has argued the Republicans budget math “doesn’t add up,” highlighting in a statement this week that a Congressional Budget Office estimate found that to reach the goal of balancing the budget in 10 years, “without raising taxes on the wealthy or corporations, and without cutting Social Security, Medicare, defense and some veteran’s benefits-Congressional Republicans would need to eliminate everything else in the Federal budget.”

House Republicans haven’t submitted a budget yet while Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has met for weeks with different factions of his caucus to come to a decision on one.

The GOP itself is split over how to proceed, something Biden could take advantage of. The party tried to quickly pass a border bill with their new majority that would allow the Homeland Security Secretary to turn away migrants at the border. But, GOP moderates opposed it and the caucus couldn’t come to an agreement.

While GOP lawmakers try again on immigration legislation, they will likely keep up the rhetoric that the opioid crisis is an issue the Biden administration has worsened.

“The illegal fentanyl trade and the ongoing epidemic of fentanyl overdoses are going to keep the border crisis front and center because Republicans want to secure our border and shut down routes used for fentanyl trafficking,” Cote said.

Republicans and some Democrats also for months had called for Biden to make a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, which he did earlier this year. It showcased a somewhat “no-win” situation for Biden. While at the border, many Republicans said the trip had come too late and was met with little fanfare.

Democrats though argue the time is ripe for Biden to set the focus on one of many deciding issues ahead of 2024.

“When you have the White House and the loudest megaphone in politics, it’s never too late,” Zapien said. “The president is always on higher political grounds.”

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