House seeks to break stalemate over long-term federal funding

Greg Nash

House lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to tighten the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, a move that serves as both a tangible response to recent terror attacks and a potential catalyst in breaking the stalemate over government funding.

Large parts of the federal government will shut down if Congress doesn’t act before Saturday, and the bipartisan talks over an omnibus spending bill appeared to break down this week over policy amendments, also known as riders.

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“Right now it is a nonstarter because of the riders that are in it,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said Tuesday after huddling with fellow Democrats in the Capitol. 

Among the most contentious of those riders is a Republican provision to halt the Obama administration’s Syrian refugee program, a legislative response to last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and put enormous pressure on Congress to bolster national security.

Republicans have pressed hard for the refugee language, sensing a political opening after the Paris attacks and encouraged by the 47 Democrats who supported the measure when it passed through the House as a stand-alone bill last month.

Last week’s shooting massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., which the FBI is treating as an act of terror, has only whetted Congress’s appetite to enact some security response before year’s end.

But President Obama has vowed to veto the refugee bill if it hits his desk, and congressional Democratic leaders have singled it out as a “poison pill” rider that would kill a deal on the government spending bill.

The visa measure is increasingly being viewed as the anti-terror provision that has the bipartisan support to become law. The bill, which passed the House on Tuesday 407-19, would tighten the U.S. Visa Waiver Program by installing new screening requirements for any foreigner traveling to the U.S. who has have visited Syria, Iraq and Sudan in the last five years.

“It ought to be a place where Republicans and Democrats can come together and say, ‘We’ve acted,’ ” Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said Tuesday.

It won’t be without a fight.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanWill 'Never Trump' forces draft Romney to run? The Hill's 12:30 Report House to vote on gun legislation MORE (R-Wis.) is facing conservative pressure to keep the Syrian refugee provision — among other riders — in the must-pass spending package, which is one of the few remaining pieces of legislation certain to pass this year.

Sponsored by Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, the proposal would toughen the screening process for those fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq by requiring the heads of the FBI, Homeland Security Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to certify that each refugee poses no threat to the United States. 

White House officials, who want to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, have said the additional requirements would effectively end the program.

Helping Ryan navigate the political minefield, a number of conservative Republicans insisting on policy riders have already said they’ll vote against the omnibus bill because of an earlier agreement. That deal, negotiated between the White House and former Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerEXCLUSIVE: Pro-Hillary group takes 0K in banned donations Ryan: Benghazi report shows administration's failures Clinton can't escape Benghazi responsibility MORE (R-Ohio), would raise spending limits the conservatives support.

That dynamic steals leverage from the Freedom Caucus conservatives who toppled BoehnerJohn BoehnerEXCLUSIVE: Pro-Hillary group takes 0K in banned donations Ryan: Benghazi report shows administration's failures Clinton can't escape Benghazi responsibility MORE and gives Ryan some breathing room to negotiate an agreement that was always going to require Democratic support.

Ryan on Tuesday said GOP leaders, searching for more time to finalize a deal, will likely pursue a short-term continuing resolution (CR) to prevent a government shutdown while negotiators hash out the final details of the omnibus bill. He didn’t specify a timeline, saying only it would buy Congress “a handful of days.”

“We don’t expect to do this for a long term; we need to get it right,” Ryan said. “I don’t want us to go home until we get this done.”

Obama has vowed to oppose any CR beyond a few days’ length,  a message the White House repeated Tuesday.

Hoyer, for his part, said Democrats could live with a CR if it doesn’t extend beyond a week.

“I want to know what a handful means. One person’s handful — we all have 10 fingers, and the 18th is about 10 days from here,” he said. “So if that’s a handful, I think that’s not a problem. Longer than that, I think, is a problem.”