WASHINGTON - In what figures to be a tough sell, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is going to Capitol Hill to make the case for President Barack Obama's request for $3.7 billion to help deal with a flood of unaccompanied child immigrants that has overwhelmed the Border Patrol in South Texas.
Johnson's scheduled appearance Thursday before the Senate Appropriations Committee comes a day after Obama met with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a staunch critic of the president's handling of what Obama has called an "urgent humanitarian situation" at the border.
During his fundraising trip to Texas, Obama also met with faith leaders and other Texas officials to discuss the wave or more than 57,000 children, mostly from Central America, who have been caught crossing the border without their parents since Oct. 1. At the same time, immigration officials have arrested more than 39,000 immigrants, mostly mothers and children, traveling as family groups.
In a preview of what Johnson may hear Thursday from senators, some Republicans made it clear Wednesday that Obama's budget request would be a hard sell.
"I cannot vote for a provision which will then just perpetuate an unacceptable humanitarian crisis that's taking place on our southern border," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on the Senate floor, where he was joined by fellow Arizonan Jeff Flake and Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. They took take turns blaming Obama's policies for causing the border crisis.
In the House, Speaker John Boehner was noncommittal about bringing the spending measure to a vote.
"If we don't secure the border, nothing's going to change," Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters. "And if you look at the president's request, it's all more about continuing to deal with the problem."
Republicans blamed the president's decision to relax some deportation rules for fueling rumors circulating in Central America that once here, migrant kids would be allowed to stay.
"We're trying to stop human trafficking. Are we actually increasing it?" Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked several Obama administration officials during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, said she wanted to be careful about approving the president's emergency spending request.
"What I'm going to be focused on is accountability, who's in charge, what the plan is, who's going to be held responsible before we spend, you know, $3.7 billion," Landrieu said. "So we've got a lot more questions to be answered before I think we run too far ahead."
The president's emergency budget request includes funding for the Justice Department to hire 40 new immigration judge teams and about $1 billion for immigration enforcement efforts within the Homeland Security Department to help speed removal of immigrant families traveling with children, in addition to about $295 million to support repatriation, reintegration and border security efforts in Central America.
The Justice Department also announced Wednesday that deportation cases involving families and unaccompanied children would be moved to the top of court dockets. That means lower-priority cases will take even longer to wend through a system where there's a backlog of more than 360,000 deportation cases.
Emerging from the highly anticipated meeting with Perry, Obama said he was open to suggestions from the Texas governor and others that he dispatch National Guard troops to the border but warned that such a solution would only work temporarily. He urged Republicans to grant his emergency spending request so the government will have the resources to put a variety of ideas into action.
"The problem here is not major disagreement," Obama said in Dallas. "If they're interested in solving the problem, then this can be solved. If the preference is for politics, then it won't be solved."