A proposed government plan to use National Guard troops to help stem Mexican drug violence along the southern border is stymied by disagreements over who will pay for the soldiers and how they would be used.
Ordered by President Barack Obama in June to help secure the border with Mexico, the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security drafted a $225 million program to temporarily deploy 1,500 Guard troops to supplement U.S. Border Patrol agents.
The two agencies are wrangling over how to structure the deployment, but the primary sticking point is the money, according to senior administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The funding stalemate lingers even after Obama renewed his commitment to Mexican officials on Monday to reinforce the border and to help Mexico battle the drug cartels. Fierce battles between Mexican law enforcement and the cartels have left as many as 11,000 people dead and fueled concerns about violence spilling into the U.S.
"The United States," Obama said during a news conference in Mexico Monday, "will also meet its responsibilities by continuing our efforts to reduce the demand for drugs and continuing to strengthening the security of our shared border — not only to protect the American people, but to stem the illegal southbound flow of American guns and cash that helps fuel this extraordinary violence."
Meanwhile, state leaders are getting antsy.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry is still waiting for a response to his request for 1,000 more troops, his spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said Tuesday.
"For too long the border has gone without the adequate resources to secure it," Cesinger said. "It's a federal responsibility but a Texas problem."
Early drafts of the Pentagon's plan revealed Defense would seek reimbursement for its costs of the program, which is slated to last just one year, giving U.S. Border Patrol time to build up its force of agents.
The Department of Homeland Security, which expects to get roughly $44 billion in its overall 2010 budget compared to the Pentagon's $636 billion — is also reluctant to bear the costs of the proposed program.
Military officials have also balked at having a highly visible uniformed presence at border crossings.
One administration official said an initial Pentagon draft was nixed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates because it suggested that Guard troops could be used to help screen commercial vehicles at the border.
Defense leaders have been insistent that the U.S. avoid any appearance of militarizing the border, and they are opposed to using the soldiers at border entry points to openly inspect vehicles.
Defense officials have been uneasy about the Guard plan from the onset, insisting that the effort be temporary and not tied to any existing program that could end up being extended or made permanent. Adding to those concerns is the fact that while the program would be federally funded, the Guard members would be under the control of the border states' governors.
At the same time, Pentagon officials have grumbled that the latest demands come as the U.S. is still fighting two wars, including an escalation of fighting in Afghanistan, and the Guard units are still needed to take on some of the battlefield duties in both wars.
Resolution weeks away
A new draft that drops those border inspections from the list of Guard missions was prepared, and one senior administration official said that Gates and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano agreed on that move in a conversation last week.
One official said a resolution to the matter is still some weeks away. Other debates have involved where the soldiers would be stationed and what tasks they would perform.
"The two agencies are resolving a handful of issues that remain," Paul Stockton, the Pentagon's assistant secretary for homeland defense, told The Associated Press Tuesday. "The Defense Department is working closely with DHS to make sure the president has viable options to consider prior to making his decision."
Stockton, who last month traveled to El Paso, Texas, to review the border situation, declined to provide details of the negotiations, but said agencies are close to finalizing options to send to the president.
Texas governor made original request
The two agencies have apparently agreed to include a provision that would allow armed Guard soldiers to conduct surveillance near the border. The soldiers would not perform law enforcement duties, so they would carry weapons solely for self-protection, officials said.
Other Guard missions could intelligence analysis, monitoring of entry stations, helicopter transportation support and aviation surveillance — which would likely involved unmanned aircraft.
The White House order was sparked by a request last February from Perry, who asked Napolitano for 1,000 National Guard troops on the border. In March, Arizona Gov. Janice Brewer joined in, asking for 250 additional Guard troops above 150 already there. In both cases, the state officials wanted the soldiers to be mobilized by the federal government so that the states would not have to pay for them.
Officials argue that additional border patrol agents are needed so they can more diligently monitor the southbound traffic, as well as continue inspections of those heading northbound into the U.S. There are currently about 19,500 border patrol agents, with roughly 17,200 on the southern border.
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