House Passes Syrian Refugee Restrictions That Obama Would Veto

Updated on
  • Ryan says measure would `pause' entry of refugees to U.S.
  • White House says refugees already undergo rigorous screening

House Passes Syrian Refugee Restriction by 289-137

The House voted to temporarily block refugees from Syria and Iraq from entering the U.S., a quick response to last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris and one that drew a veto threat from President Barack Obama.

The bill, which passed 289-137 Thursday, would sharply tighten screening of refugees from those two countries, which House Speaker Paul Ryan said “effectively puts a pause in the program” for more than six months. That vote total would be enough to override a presidential veto. The Senate hasn’t indicated whether it will take up the measure, although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has expressed support for a pause.

The Obama administration said the bill wouldn’t improve U.S. security. All refugees already “undergo the most rigorous and thorough security screening of anyone” admitted to the U.S., the White House said Wednesday as it warned that Obama would veto the measure. Some lawmakers from both parties have also said that a bigger worry is a program that allows visa-free entry to the U.S. for citizens of several dozen countries, including much of Europe.

The bill passed Thursday would block Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S. unless four top U.S. law-enforcement and national security officials -- including the FBI director and secretary of Homeland Security -- affirm to Congress that the individuals aren’t a security threat. One of the Islamic State extremists who staged the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, killing at least 129 people, may have entered Europe posing as a Syrian refugee.

The measure was backed by 242 Republicans and 47 Democrats, while 2 Republicans and 135 Democrats voted against it.

“Republicans and Democrats came together in a veto-proof majority to respond to the will of the American people and do our primary job to keep them safe,” said Representative Richard Hudson of North Carolina, a Republican, who co-sponsored the bill with Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas.

Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said Wednesday on Fox News’ “Hannity” program that the measure would temporarily block such refugees from entering the U.S. because “it will take longer than six months, I believe, to put these kinds of security” into place.

No Time to Wait

Asked whether Congress should use a spending bill due by Dec. 11 to defund the admission of Syrian refugees, Ryan said on Fox that he wasn’t taking any options off the table although “I don’t think we have time to wait.”

“The first duty of government is to keep our people safe,” Ryan said Thursday in a news conference before the vote. “This is an urgent matter. And this is why we are dealing with this urgently.”

Ryan said he’s discussed the House bill with McConnell, but wouldn’t elaborate. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said on the Senate floor Thursday that “it’s clear the American people are concerned about the administration’s ability to properly vet thousands of individuals from Syria.”

It “simply makes sense to take a step back now, to press the pause button so we can determine the facts and ensure” all necessary safety policies are in place, McConnell said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said Thursday that Obama isn’t likely to have to veto the House bill. “No way will it get passed,” said Reid, suggesting the measure won’t have enough support in the Senate to advance to the president’s desk.

“I am confident that in the unlikely scenario that this bill comes back to the House, we would sustain a presidential veto,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, after the vote.

Visa Waivers

The Syrian refugee issue has snowballed into a new conflict between Obama and House Republicans, who have battled over the president’s health-care overhaul, immigration and government spending. In contrast, senators of both parties who attended a private briefing Wednesday evening said they thought there was an opportunity for bipartisan legislation to strengthen U.S. security following the Paris attacks. The moves come at a time the EU is also considering tighter border controls.

Some members of both parties say potential terrorists can find much easier ways of entering the U.S. than as refugees, including through the visa waiver program. Pressed about why the House measure isn’t addressing visa waiver concerns, Ryan said, “As I mentioned, this is step one in a long-step process.”

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, vice chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she and Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona would introduce a bill after Congress’s Thanksgiving break that would bar anyone who has been in Syria or Iraq within the past five years from entering the U.S. under a visa waiver. Flake said after a closed briefing for senators Wednesday that there are much more pressing security concerns than the refugee program.

“I’ve never thought if there are concerns, that this is where we should place our concerns -- in the refugee vetting process,” Flake told reporters.

‘Growing Threat’

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican presidential candidate, introduced legislation Wednesday that would prohibit refugees from entering the U.S. from any country that has territory controlled by a terrorist organization, such as Iraq and Syria.

Fifty-three percent of U.S. adults want the U.S. to stop letting in Syrian refugees in the face of fears of terrorist infiltrators, according to a Bloomberg Politics national poll released Wednesday. In the survey, conducted in the days after the Paris attacks, just 28 percent would keep the resettlement program with the existing screening process, while 11 percent said they would favor a limited program to accept only Syrian Christians while excluding Muslims -- an idea Obama has dismissed as “shameful” and un-American.

The Republicans’ bill, H.R. 4038, “is not meant to be the sole solution to the security problems we face in vetting Syrians and other refugees,” House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said before Thursday’s vote. “It is an important first step. And I look forward to Congress taking additional action to ensure America’s safety,” he said.

‘Unreasonable’ Standards

The Rules Committee decided not to allow floor votes on any amendments offered by Democrats or Republicans. The top Rules Committee Democrat, Representative Louise Slaughter of New York, said her party has been left out of negotiations. “We all have a country to save,” she said.

The House measure “does nothing to promote security,” Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement Thursday. “This measure sets unreasonable clearance standards that the Department of Homeland Security cannot meet, and thereby it would halt refugee resettlement in the United States.”

Also not getting a vote was an amendment proposed by Representative Bradley Byrne, Republican of Alabama, that would defund all entry of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the U.S. Democrats criticized Republicans for not keeping Ryan’s promise that legislation would go through “regular order” of a committee vote before going to the floor, with floor votes allowed on amendments.

“ISIS did not follow regular order in attacking people in Paris,” responded Goodlatte.

‘Vulnerable’ Refugees

Some lawmakers are discussing using a government spending bill that must be passed by Dec. 11 to address concerns over Syrian refugees. Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas said, “It could be a cut or additional funding” for programs in the bill.

Obama has said he wants the U.S. to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The U.S. is already selective, usually considering for resettlement only refugees deemed “vulnerable,” such as widows, unaccompanied children or political enemies of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Candidates are interviewed in person at refugee camps bordering Syria. The vetting takes nearly two years, on average, and only around 2 percent are single males of combat age, officials said.

The U.S. welcomed 1,682 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2015, said Simon Henshaw, the State Department’s principal deputy assistant for refugees and migration. “Measured against more than 4 million Syrian refugees currently hosted in the Middle East, this is a modest but an important contribution to the global effort” to help Syrian refugees, he said.

Pelosi said in a floor speech it was “outrageous” to be “slamming the door on mothers and children” from Syria and not vote on a bill, introduced by Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, to deny firearms and explosives to people on the FBI’s terror watch list.

“We can both assure the security of our country and welcome women and children to our country who are fleeing ISIS brutality,” Pelosi said.

The bill is H.R. 4038.