Sen. Marco Rubio on Friday became one of the first prominent lawmakers to publicly back President Donald Trump’s bid to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Rubio’s support extended his transformation from a bitter Republican campaign foe of Trump to an important legislative broker who could help the new president move key parts of his agenda through Congress.
“I’ve always believed we need a physical barrier,” Rubio told reporters Friday in Immokalee. “It helps to funnel people, and it’s not just for people. It’s for drugs and everything else.”
Asked how the government should pay for building and maintaining the wall, Rubio said some of its costs had been included in a 2013 immigration-reform package that drew bipartisan support despite eventually reaching an impasse in Congress.
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“This is a vital function of the federal government,” Rubio said. “That is a federal responsibility — to keep our country safe. It should have priority over some other domestic spending that is not as critical for the federal government to focus on.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a fellow Cuban American and Republican, expressed support for Trump’s immigration crackdown, but stopped short of backing the wall.
“President Trump is fulfilling his promise to the American people to secure the borders of the United States,” Diaz-Balart said.
Rubio aides noted that following a 2006 summer showdown over immigration, 26 Democratic senators had voted for the Secure Fence Act, among them Sens. Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.
The measure, which President George W. Bush signed into law in October 2006, directed the homeland security secretary to increase surveillance and install reinforced double-fenced barriers along large sections of the border.
The executive order Trump signed Thursday refers to that legislation in demanding “the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.” It also requires the hiring of 5,000 more border agents, even though Trump two days earlier had imposed a freeze on adding new federal employees.
Rubio’s support for Trump’s initiative is significant for several reasons.
The Miami Republican was among the last candidates to drop out of the divisive Republican White House race.
During the presidential debates and at other points, Rubio and Trump had a number of memorable confrontations: Trump belittled Rubio as “Little Marco,” while the Floridian called the New Yorker a dangerous “con man” who couldn’t be trusted with the codes to the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Reversing months of having said he did not know whether he could support Trump as president, Rubio endorsed him in March within days of dropping out of the White House contest.
As a Cuban-American leader, Rubio’s stance on the wall and, more broadly, immigration, will likely reverberate among the large Hispanic community in South Florida and beyond.
And Rubio has supported reforms that would help undocumented immigrants gain legal status in the United States after meeting certain conditions.
In addition to Democratic lawmakers likely to oppose building a wall, the effort could run into problems with GOP fiscal hawks in Congress.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, an influential anti-spending group in Washington, issued a forceful and detailed statement under the headline “Building a Wall of Waste.”
Noting that the government has already spent $2.4 billion securing the border since the 2006 law, the organization cited estimates of a wall’s cost ranging from $6.7 billion to $25 billion.
“The numbers make your head spin, precisely because there are so many variables in what ‘securing the border’ really means,” the group said.
A key administration figure could be Rep. Mick Mulvaney, the South Carolina Republican Trump has nominated to head the White House budget office.
Since joining the House in January 2013, Mulvaney has established a reputation as one of the fiercest anti-spending lawmakers.
During a prolonged congressional fight over raising the federal debt ceiling in 2011, fueled by the threat of the United States defaulting on loan payments, Mulvaney was among the last holdouts to vote for increasing the total amount of outstanding debt.