Late lobbying against refugee bill backfires on the White House

Late lobbying against refugee bill backfires on the White House

The Obama administration's eleventh-hour bid to rally Democrats against Syrian refugee legislation backfired on Thursday, according to several lawmakers and aides.           

A number of Democrats who were on the fence about the bill decided to vote yes after hearing administration officials make the case against it.

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Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerry ConnollyCongress rips DC Metro over falsified reports that led to July train derailment DC Metro chief pledges to cut train delays in half Tim Ryan ponders Pelosi challenge MORE (D-Va.) said he was leaning against the Republicans' legislation heading into Thursday's pre-vote huddle with Jeh Johnson, secretary of the Homeland Security Department (DHS), and White House chief of staff Denis McDonoughDenis McDonoughThe Hill's 12:30 Report Obama, Trump display unity in White House meeting Dark days for Obama’s White House MORE.

By the end of the meeting, he'd decided to support it.

"I walked in there generally a no — probably a no — and I left a decided yes. And I'm not alone," Connolly said after the legislation passed on the House floor with help from almost 50 Democrats.

"It didn't persuade. It had the opposite effect — for a number of us."

Another Democratic lawmaker who backed the bill said that, even as Johnson and McDonough were making their pitch, supporters were picking up votes.

"A lot of them," the lawmaker texted to The Hill from inside the meeting. 

The administration has long struggled in its relations with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, with even Obama's staunchest Democratic allies often grumbling about the president's communications and outreach efforts.

Those criticisms have resurfaced amid the debate over the Republicans' bill to toughen the screening process for refugees fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq. 

Rushed to the floor following last week's terrorist attacks in Paris, the legislation requires the heads of the FBI, DHS and national intelligence agency to certify each refugee as non-threatening before allowing them into the U.S.

The administration has vowed to veto the bill, arguing that it installs barriers too high to make the refugee program workable. The current process, officials say, is plenty tough.

Most Democrats agree — and even lawmakers who voted for the GOP bill quietly said the current screening process is an arduous one. But many Democrats have also expressed frustrations with what they consider the administration's failure to articulate that message — to Congress and the public alike.

Johnson and McDonough visited the Capitol Thursday morning in an effort to address those concerns. While the fate of the bill was never in question in the GOP-controlled House, the administration hoped to minimize the Democratic defections and ensure the promised veto could be upheld. 

"We had a great meeting," McDonough said as he left the room.

Democrats, apparently, saw things differently.

The refugee measure passed 289 to 137, with 47 Democrats joining all but two Republicans in support. Given the total vote count — 426, with eight lawmakers absent — the 289 votes would have been sufficient to override a presidential veto.

And Connolly suggested the number of Democrats could have been higher.

"There were others prepared to vote for it," he said. 

Many Democrats said they were simply left unconvinced by the argument from Johnson and McDonough.

"I've seen better presentations in my time," Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the head of the Democrats' messaging arm who voted for the GOP bill, said leaving the meeting.

An aide in the room would likely not have been surprised by Israel's assessment.

"[It's] not going over well," the aide said in an email. "[Their] message on this is too complicated."

Yet another Democratic aide described the meeting as "a total disaster" that shifted Democrats behind the bill.

Leaving Thursday's gathering, Johnson appeared frustrated that his message wasn't resonating, even with many Democratic allies.

"All I can do is keep repeating what I've been saying all week," Johnson said. "Sometimes you have to say something 10 times before somebody will notice."

Connolly was quick to concede that the current background check system is "already very robust." But following the Paris attack, he argued, many felt Congress needed to act. And the administration's argument was simply not enough to convince him the extra security layers would cripple the refugee program.

"They are concerned that the ... consequence of this is to simply add to the difficulty and timeline of status approval. So what's already an 18- to 24-month process could become twice that," Connolly said. "And obviously … no one wants that as an outcome."

"[But] when people said, 'Well, can't we work that out administratively by adding resources, delegating certification, maybe even collapsing all of this into a more expedited, accelerated process across the board?' The answer wasn't, 'Well, no, statutorily we wouldn't be able to do that.' The answer was, 'We don't have the staff.' 

"That's just a matter of mechanics, it's not a matter of principle or statute," Connolly said. "And that's not a good enough reason for me to vote no. And I think a lot of the other Democrats felt the same way."