Updated, 8 p.m. | With ongoing protests in California, business leaders in Washington calling for a legislative overhaul and lawmakers trading barbs on Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama heard from all sides of the immigration debate Wednesday — including some particularly pointed criticism from a member of his own party.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a fifth-term Democrat from the Texas border town of Laredo, ripped Obama for not scheduling a visit to the Rio Grande Valley while on a two-day fundraising swing through the state.
The president, speaking to reporters Wednesday evening after meeting in Dallas with Gov. Rick Perry and other Texas leaders on the crisis, defended his decision not to visit the border.
"This isn't theater," he said. "I'm not interested in photo-ops. I'm interested in solving the problem."
Lawmakers from both parties want Obama to take charge of a more robust federal response — though there is wide disagreement as to what that response should be — to the surge of tens of thousands of central American women and children who have illegally crossed the Texas border in recent months. Obama said in Dallas that Perry suggested moving forward with steps to secure the border with or without congressional approval.
"He suggested maybe you just need to go ahead and act,” Obama said. “And I had to remind him I am getting sued right now by Mr. Boehner, apparently, for going ahead and acting instead of going through Congress.”
The political conversation Wednesday centered on whether the president is somehow abdicating leadership on the crisis.
"I hate to use the word 'bizarre,' but ... when he is shown playing pool in Colorado, drinking a beer, and he can't even go 242 miles to the Texas border?" Cuellar said in an appearance on MSNBC. "If they are worried about putting a face, the president's face, to this ... humanitarian crisis, I think it's worse if he doesn't even show up." Cuellar was referring to news reports from a day earlier showing Obama, who was in Colorado Tuesday to raise money for Democrats, relaxing with in a Denver pub with Democratic Gov. John W. Hickenlooper over beers and a game of pool.
“When I saw that, it just really floored me,” Cuellar said. Perry, who has also called for the president to tour the crowded illegal immigrant detention facilities on the border, got about 15 minutes with Obama. Perry had said handling the crisis on the Rio Grande required more than a brief handshake on the tarmac outside Air Force One. Obama patted the governor on the back and the two were seen talking privately while heading toward Marine One.
Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, one of the most vocal proponents of overhauling the immigration system and an Illinois Democrat who has not shied away from criticizing the president when he felt it was necessarily, also expressed concern about the optics of Obama’s decision to forgo a border visit.
“Look, going to a fundraiser in Texas is like going on vacation,” Gutiérrez said when CQ Roll Call asked about the Obama trip. “I have family members who are ill and in the hospital. I think I should go down and visit them in Puerto Rico, not go on vacation there.”
Gutierrez said it would be “a wonderful idea” for the president to rethink his schedule to “show empathy” to the children who are being detained there.
“If you went around to members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, I think you’d see there is a general consensus,” he added.
CHC Chairman Rubén Hinojosa has invited Obama to visit the border, saying his presence is needed to “fully comprehend what is happening in our region.”
Hinojosa extended that invitation with his fellow Texas Democrat Filemon Vela, who represents the district that houses the Rio Grande Valley sector of the U.S.-Mexico border. Vela, a freshman, was a member of the CHC until last year, when he split with the group over a disagreement about whether members should support the bipartisan Senate immigration bill’s approach to border security.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said he didn’t see a downside to Obama visiting the border during his scheduled trip to Texas — but he didn’t necessarily see an upside, either.
“I don’t think that would hurt,” he said at his Tuesday briefing. “I think it would send a signal of his concern. … But I don’t think that the president’s going to the border, per se, could escalate his attention to the matter. He is very seized on this issue.”
Republicans and Democrats clashed on the floor of the Senate over the border crisis and the administration's request , submitted a day earlier, for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to address the situation at the border.
That request has already come under fire from conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, which called it a "non-starter."
Backing billions of new spending on the border is an especially tough proposition for House and Senate Democrats facing challenges in red states where the crisis has only added to the president's woes.
Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu said at a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday that the administration needs to be more accountable for how it spends money on the border, a strong signal from a vulnerable Democrat in a re-election race rated a Tossup by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
“No one wants to see children suffer, and Congress must act to solve this problem in a compassionate and humane way. However, I am also going to be focused on accountability,” Landrieu said in a statement after the hearing. “We need to know who is in charge of fixing the problem, what the plan is, and who is going to be held responsible for delivering results before we spend another $3.7 billion."
While lawmakers took aim at the president and each other, Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has long supported an immigration overhaul that would offer some legal status for undocumented workers, again called for bipartisan action. He said there is "a lot of time between now and the end of the year.”
Business leaders in manufacturing and agriculture joined Donohue as part of the “National Day of Action for Immigration Reform," which also included events in more than 60 “targeted” House Republican districts spanning 25 states. Donohue said election-year politics stymied chances for an overhaul, but that lawmakers should consider their constituents who support addressing immigration.
“I understand the challenges of getting elected. We have all worked on candidate selection and on the primaries,” Donohue said. “But just remember, you not only get elected, you have to serve.”
Related stories: Obama 'Happy to Consider' Sending National Guard to Border to get Votes on Supplemental A Tale of Two Congressional Visits to the Southwest Border Obama’s Bill for Border Surge Gets Frosty Reception on the Right Obama Asking Congress for $4.3 Billion for Border Crisis, Wildfires On Climate Change, Landrieu Stands With Coal, Against Obama Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.