WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans on Thursday escalated their war of words over the border crisis as lawmakers began considering the White House's $3.7 billion funding request to address the problem.
Even before the Senate Appropriations Committee began its hearing on Obama's request, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaled that the administration faces tough sledding on its supplemental request.
"We're not giving the president a blank check," Boehner told reporters Thursday.
Boehner said the House of Representatives this month will likely take action on the crisis of unaccompanied children illegally crossing the border into the U.S. but didn't have details as a House working group is reviewing Obama's request.
McConnell echoed Boehner's sentiment, saying: "We want to make sure we actually get the right tools to help fix the problem. And that's not what we've seen so far from the president."
Obama, speaking in Austin, Texas, Thursday, blasted House Republicans for not taking up a comprehensive immigration bill. The Senate passed an immigration overhaul bill, with the support of 14 Republicans, in June 2013.
"They don't have enough energy or organization or I don't know what to just even vote no on the bill," Obama said of House Republicans. "And then they're mad at me for trying to do some things to make the immigration system work better."
Obama wants the supplemental funds to pay for additional border patrol agents, more beds at detention centers, a media campaign to discourage parents from sending their children illegally to the U.S. and to increase the prosecution of smuggling networks.
The number of unaccompanied children traveling from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, most through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, has surged despite an increase in deportations. About 52,000 minors traveling without their parents have been caught at the Southwest border since October.
The president defended his decision not to visit the border while in the Lone Star State, and continued to accuse Republicans of playing politics with the growing immigration crisis.
"I'm not interested in photo ops," Obama said when he was asked Wednesday why he didn't visit the border. "I'm interested in solving a problem."
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday that Obama's supplemental request reflects priorities raised by Republicans.
"If they're interested in just talking about the problem and trying to capitalize on what they may perceive as a political advantage, that's going to make this pretty hard to solve," he said. "But if there is a willingness to set aside differences and focus on specific solutions to problems that everybody agrees exists, then we should be able to get that done."
Boehner said the border situation "is a problem of the president's own making."
"He's been president for five and a half years," Boehner added in a raised voice. "When's he going to take responsibility?"
Several Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee chastised the administration for reacting late to the border situation and expressed skepticism that Obama's $3.7 billion plan will work.
"I personally have no confidence that pouring billions of dollars into our current immigration system will solve the crisis," said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the committee's ranking Republican. "I think we have to get serious about enforcing our current laws and protecting our border if we're ever to get different results."
Despite disagreements, there appears to be some common ground on which the White House and congressional Republicans can work. Boehner and other Republicans have urged Obama to dispatch the National Guard to the border — something that the president said he would consider in exchange for the appropriation.
Obama and Republicans agree that a 2008 anti-sex-trafficking law that bolstered protections for children not from Canada and Mexico who enter the U.S. unaccompanied is partially responsible for the surge at the border and should be altered.
But that change could meet resistance from congressional Democrats. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a member of the Appropriations Committee and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, expressed reluctance to change the 2008 law. House Minority Leader
Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she would rather have children from Mexico receive the same protections as those from Central America.
"What's really important is to get the supplemental," Pelosi said Thursday. "What price we have to pay to do that, we'll see in the course of the debate. But I would have hoped that they would not have made that change."
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he has a problem with the Obama administration for what he says is its eagerness to deport children while acknowledging that they face dangers in their home country.
"I'm sorry, I have to disagree with this administration," he said of the unaccompanied children. "This administration should say we need to follow the law: These kids need to be protected. They need to have Health and Human Services protect them and care for them and give them every meaningful right to apply for asylum."