WASHINGTON — Amid hardening positions by both political parties, House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday he's losing optimism that Democrats and Republicans can agree before their summer break on legislation to address the influx of young Central Americans across the U.S. border.
Boehner said any legislation that would send emergency funds to the border to alleviate the surge of migrants should be accompanied by a change in a 2008 law that he says is being abused. Most Democrats oppose that option, and the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee emphasized Thursday that he can't accept changing U.S. policy to speed the removal of Central American kids without court hearings.
Asked if he had confidence Republicans and Democrats could reach agreement by month's end, Boehner said: "I don't have as much optimism as I'd like to have." Congress leaves for a month long recess at the end of July.
President Barack Obama has asked for $3.7 billion in emergency spending to boost enforcement at the border and to increase housing for the border crossing minors. Republicans want to lower the amount and want changes in a law that would help speed up removals.
"I don't know how Congress can send more money to the border to begin to mitigate the problem if you don't do something about the '08 law that is being abused," Boehner said. "And it is being abused."
But Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who was presiding over a hearing on the border crisis on Thursday, rejected that idea.
"I understand the desire to accelerate the process, but accelerating without due process is not acceptable," he said.
Boehner's call to change the law underscored what is emerging as the Republican price for supporting any part of the president's emergency spending request. But stiffening Democratic opposition has left any solution unclear.
A dispute also emerged at Thursday's hearing over whether the border crisis was caused in part by President Barack Obama's two-year-old policy allowing certain immigrants brought illegally to the country as children to stay and work here.
Republicans are pressing the argument that the Obama policy was a major driver of the spike in migration by kids from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Sen. Ted Cruz announced Tuesday that he will use any legislation to deal with the crisis to try to overturn that directive -- an indication that the politics around the issue are getting even tougher with less than three weeks left for Congress to address the problem before leaving Washington for the annual August recess.
Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, tried to get Obama administration witnesses to acknowledge the crisis was caused in part by Obama's policy, holding up a chart showing migration spiking in 2012.
"Are you telling me that his executive order that we're not going to send any children back didn't cause an explosion?" he asked.
"I think very little of it has to do with the immigration debate here," said Thomas A. Shannon Jr., a counselor at the State Department.
Shannon said that gang violence was a major driver but that smugglers also exploited U.S. policies that in practice allow Central American kids to stay once they arrive. He pointed to the 2008 anti-trafficking law signed by George W. Bush that Republicans want to amend, not to Obama's 2012 directive.
Risch and other Republicans insisted Obama's policy played a large role.
"In 2012, this thing just skyrockets," said Risch.
Still, lawmakers in both parties expressed the desire to act amid signs that the public was demanding a solution. One in six people now call immigration the most pressing problem facing the U.S., according to a new Gallup poll -- up dramatically just since last month, when only 5 percent said immigration topped their list of concerns.
In that time, the crisis of unaccompanied children at the border has burst into headlines, with more than 57,000 young people arriving since the fall.
"It's a terrible situation. You talk about small kids, nobody there to help them, but they've got to go back," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a supporter of stalled congressional efforts to overhaul the nation's immigration system. "I am out there on immigration reform, but there is no market for this in America. ... America is not going to tolerate this."