Senate Democrats on Tuesday moved to quickly pass a $3.7 billion package that provides funding to care for but also more quickly deport the thousands of children illegally flooding into the country at the southwest border.
Hours after the White House revealed the package, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said his goal was to finish a bill by Congress’s August recess.
Republicans argued the plan did not do enough to secure the border, and several repeated their calls for Obama to send National Guard troops to the border to protect it.
They warned the proposal would fail to address the underlying issues that have led to overcrowded detention centers and long waits for asylum hearings, and used it to attack the White House’s overall approach to immigration, which they said created a perception that the children will be free to stay in the U.S. if they can make it over the border.
“He’s asking for a blank check in effect, $3.7 billion, with no reforms,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Still, few GOP lawmakers balked at the request’s price tag, which climbs to $4.3 billion with the addition of $615 million to help the Agriculture Department fight wildfires in the West.
Many Republicans agreed that increased resources were needed to deal with the issue but said they would push for a larger share of the package to go to border security.
“If you’re going to spend $3.7 billion, let’s make sure we’re not just throwing money at a short-term problem,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who helped negotiate an immigration bill that passed the Senate a year ago. “Let’s make sure it’s broader than that.”
There were also some concerns expressed by Senate Democrats, who hedged at the White House’s call for Congress to make it easier to quickly deport children by changing a 2008 law that grants an asylum hearing to any minor from a country that does not border the United States before deportation.
The 2008 law was intended to protect victims of human trafficking brought to the country against their will.
“I hope at the end of the day it is still basically fair and humanitarian. We’re dealing with children here,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) “Everybody’s very concerned. I’m one of them.”
The White House has not sent legislative language to Congress, meaning lawmakers will have plenty of opportunity to adjust the package.
“We’re certainly willing to work with them,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “Ultimately this is Congress’ responsibility to ensure that the executive branch has both the resources and the authority necessary to deal with this challenge.”
The request includes $1.8 billion for the Health and Human Services Department to provide “appropriate care” for the children, who are mostly coming from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
It also includes $1.1 billion for the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The funding would help expand border security task forces and help pay for transportation costs associated with the rise in unaccompanied children.
Another $433 million is dedicated to additional resources for border agents, including overtime and “temporary duty costs” as well as an increase in air surveillance capabilities. The Department of Justice would receive $64 million to hire approximately 40 additional immigration judge teams, as well as lawyers to represent the immigrant children.
The Senate Appropriations Committee announced it would hold a hearing on Thursday to discuss the emergency spending bill. That hearing will be with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell.
Republican leaders did not immediately demand that the bill be offset with other spending cuts, although some GOP lawmakers said they would be looking for offsets.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he did not yet have an opinion on the bill and had to study it.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) echoed that message, saying House Republicans would review the package. He also reiterated his call to send the National Guard to the border.
Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a reliable Obama critic, refrained from rejecting the proposal outright.
“We’ll wait to see what the precise details are,” Cruz said. “I support anything that makes meaningful steps to actually secure the border. But the Obama administration has demonstrated for five years they have zero interest in actually securing the border.”
Heritage Action, the outside conservative group, took a more aggressive stance, calling the plan a “nonstarter.” The group argued the issue should be dealt with via the regular appropriations process and within preexisting budget caps.
The president will travel to Texas on Wednesday, but Republicans criticized him for not visiting the border while he is in the region. Instead, he plans to address the issue in a meeting with local leaders. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has accepted an offer to take part in that meeting.
The $3.7 billion request is much more than the $2 billion mentioned in previous reports. Administration officials had said the request would be more than $2 billion but had not signaled it might be nearly double that cost.
Speaking about this crisis on Tuesday, White House officials say Obama believes the wave of immigrants is an “urgent humanitarian situation.”
They said they hoped Congress would quickly approve the package.
“Our hope and expectation ... is that this will be treated as the urgent humanitarian situation that it is,” one White House official said.
Christina Marcos and Bernie Becker contributed.
Updated at 8:29 p.m.