By Lisa Mascaro and Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Amid disintegrating support for President Barack Obama’s handling of the border crisis, the White House on Wednesday reached out to friends and foes alike in Congress in an effort to salvage its plan to respond to the surge of Central American children at the Southwestern border.
In a private meeting between Obama and lawmakers at the White House, and later during an unusual briefing by administration officials for the full Senate on Capitol Hill, the president’s team sought help in resolving the issue after Congress all but tanked a $3.7 billion request for emergency funding.
The flurry of activity came as lawmakers are launching their own proposals for dealing with the 57,000 unaccompanied minors who have been apprehended at the border since Oct. 1.
“We’re open to Congress doing their job in deciding what the best path is,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
But as partisan battle lines in Congress harden, the debate appears certain to become more heated before it comes to any conclusion. With just nine days before lawmakers break for August, the window for compromise is narrowing. Meanwhile, border officials have warned that by next month they will run out of money to handle the emergency.
The White House did not unveil any new ideas Wednesday; an administration official said Obama was in “listening mode.” But the official did not rule out the possibility that the president will take steps on his own if Congress fails to act.
Obama has vowed to make administrative changes to immigration policy by the end of the summer, responding to House Republicans’ refusal to consider an immigration overhaul bill. Unilateral moves carry political risks, however. The president’s marks for handling the immigration crisis appear to be slipping.
A Pew Research survey released Wednesday found 58 percent of respondents disapproved of the way Obama was dealing with the surge of children. Just 28 percent approved, giving Obama one of the lowest ratings for his handling of any issue since he became president, the researchers said.
Republicans aren’t faring any better. A poll found that 66 percent of respondents disapproved of the GOP’s approach to immigration.
The border crisis may also be hurting the push for broader immigration policy changes. Support for a path to legal status for immigrants already living in the country fell to 68 percent, from 73 percent in February, Pew found. Although that is within the poll’s margin of error, the slippage in GOP backing was worse: from nearly 2-1 support in February to 54 percent-43 percent today.
White House officials have been eyeing the political damage for weeks. They had hoped to use the summer to hammer Republicans for blocking immigration reform. Instead, they’ve been dealing with fallout from the border surge and clashing with members of their own party, who also have concerns about the administration’s approach.
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), was among the Congressional Hispanic Caucus members who met with the president Wednesday at the White House to voice growing unease with the administration’s interest in sending most of the Central American children home to face possible violence and insecurity.
“Like the American people, I think members of Congress have a concern for the children and want to make sure they’re treated humanely,” Castro said.
But Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), said it would be “insanity” to hand the president the $3.7 billion he has requested. Brooks called for the prompt deportation of the children and implementation of broader policy changes to prevent another surge of youths.
Part of the stalemate has been of the administration’s own making. Last month, White House aides suggested changing a 2008 anti-trafficking law to more speedily deport the Central American youths, a move that appeared intended to show Obama was sending a hard-line message to stop families from dispatching their children north.
That idea ran into stiff resistance from Democrats in both the House and Senate, however. Wednesday’s meeting of Latino lawmakers grew emotional as they made their case to the president, said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL).
Republicans have seized on changing the law as a key condition for approving any emergency funding. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH), also wants National Guard troops dispatched to the border.
Further complicating the outcome on Capitol Hill is the reality that any funding bill is bound to hit political resistance among the GOP budget hawks, who may doom the effort. That uncertainty leaves Democrats wary of trying to appease Republican demands for policy changes. Instead, they are likely to push forward with a test vote in the Senate on Obama’s original request as early as next week.
“I really do think this is one of those issues where people really are trying to find a solution,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). “It involves children.”
Staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.
AFP Photo/Jewel Samad
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