Senate Blocks Bill to Restrict Syrian Refugees From U.S.

  • House-passed measure would have undermined Obama refugee plans
  • White House officials had threatened to veto legislation

Senate Democrats blocked legislation that would have temporarily kept the Obama administration from admitting thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the U.S.

Senators voted 55-43 Wednesday, with 60 required to advance the bill, H.R. 4038. It would have required U.S. officials from three agencies to certify to Congress that each individual refugee from those two countries doesn’t pose a security threat. The measure easily passed the House in November on a 289-137 vote, a week after the terrorist attacks in Paris.

"Republicans are creating a terrible distraction for the sake of embracing the hateful rhetoric, vitriol, of the Republican Party standardbearers Donald Trump and Ted Cruz," a Texas senator, Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

President Barack Obama has said he wants the U.S. to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, has said the bill would temporarily block such refugees from entering the U.S. because it would probably take more than six months to put the new security efforts into place.

QuickTake: Syria’s Civil War

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, needed six Senate Democrats to join all 54 Republicans to gain the 60 votes needed to advance the bill.

"I understand that the political pressure to oppose this balanced bill may be intense, but it’s also intensely short-sighted and I urge our Democratic friends to resist it," McConnell said on the Senate floor before the vote.

Senators Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia were the only Democrats who voted with Republicans to advance the bill.

‘Political Vote’

Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said Tuesday that the Republican-backed measure represented a "political vote."

"That’s what is wrong with this place," Nelson said in an interview. "It is political gotcha politics."

Reid said earlier Wednesday that Democrats wanted to amend the legislation in several ways, including by adding provisions to increase funds for local police anti-terror programs and airport screening. He also said they wanted to include language in the legislation denouncing Trump’s proposal to at least temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States.

The U.S. is already selective in deciding which Syrian and Iraqi refugees to admit. Officials usually consider 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 almost two years on average, officials have said.

San Bernardino

Even so, Republicans say more needs to be done to strengthen scrutiny of people admitted to the country after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, last year.

"We need to move cautiously in accepting refugees from Iraq and Syria given the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino," Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who leads the Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday on the Senate floor. "We need to fully understand the risks and schemes that these terrorists are using before we open the doors to 10,000 more Syrians."

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