Senate Dems push refugee alternative

Greg Nash

Senate Democrats are pushing a legislative alternative to a House Republican bill that would halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States, giving themselves political cover to oppose it.

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinThis week: Shutdown deadline looms over Congress Week ahead: Election hacks, Yahoo breach in the spotlight Overnight Tech: Pressure builds ahead of TV box vote | Intel Dems warn about Russian election hacks | Spending bill doesn't include internet measure MORE (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Thursday will introduce legislation broadening the debate to visa waivers granted to European citizens traveling to the United States.

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The legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeTop GOP chairmen investigating foreign visa program Pence rallies GOP before final stretch Libertarian nominee top choice among veterans MORE (R-Ariz.), would block waivers for European citizens who spent time in Syria or Iraq in the past five years.

“Let’s say France has had 2000 people leave to go and fight [in Syria.] They’re a visa waiver country so the people come back to France and then they come into the United States. The bill we would propose would strictly limit that,” she said after attending a classified briefing with senior administration officials Wednesday evening. 

She added the legislation would tighten the fingerprinting requirements for visitors who qualify for visa waivers.

“Currently, in most cases, the fingerprints are checked after they arrive in the United States. They should be done before,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinDems gain upper hand on budget McConnell: Senate could drop flood money from spending bill Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears MORE (Ill.).

While Republicans have focused on the 10,000 refugees from Syria whom President Obama wants to resettle domestically, Democrats argue they are already subject to rigorous vetting. 

They say visa waivers pose a greater security threat, noting several of the Paris attackers were French or Belgian citizens who were believed to have visited Syria.

The visa waiver program allows citizens of many European countries, including Belgium, France, Germany and Greece, to travel in the United States for up to 90 days without a visa.

House Republicans plan to vote Thursday on legislation narrowly focused on Syrian refugees. It would require the Homeland Security secretary to certify to Congress that refugees admitted to the country do not pose a security threat.

Senate Republicans on Thursday acknowledged the scope of that bill may have to be enlarged.

“The visa waiver program potentially is the place where there's greater gaps possibly than the refugee program itself,” said Sen. Bob CorkerBob CorkerSenate poised to override Obama veto US general calls out Pakistan on support for Afghan militants This week: Shutdown deadline looms over Congress MORE (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzFunding bill rejected as shutdown nears Cruz: Clinton 'tired' and 'formulaic' during debate The Trail 2016: Fight night MORE (R-Texas), who is running for president, said, “I have serious concerns about visa waivers and making sure we are protecting the safety and security of American citizens.”

Flake, speaking to reporters after Wednesday’s briefing, said that while administration officials didn't specify what changes lawmakers could make to the program, "a few of us have some ideas." 

"Obviously visa waivers been brought up — regular asylees, student visas, tourist visas, other things — that's of much more concern … than refugees," he said. 

If Democrats can broaden the House legislation, they can work on amending language related to refugees that many find troublesome.

They do not want the administration to have to certify that each and every refugee is not a security threat, something that could dramatically slow the vetting program and open senior officials to future blame in case of an incident.

“As soon as you put it on somebody’s back, you reach the level of responsibility,” said a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Feinstein is also pushing legislation to block people on the terrorist watch list from buying firearms.

“Our present situation allows a known terrorist on a watch list to be able to buy a gun and in fact thousands have,” she said. “We have a bill that will stop that.”

Feinstein’s second bill does not have a Republican cosponsor.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellDems gain upper hand on budget Overnight Finance: Senate rejects funding bill as shutdown looms | Labor Dept. to probe Wells Fargo | Fed to ease stress test rules for small banks Overnight Energy: Judges scrutinize Obama climate rule MORE (R-Ky.) said Tuesday he was unfamiliar with Feinstein’s gun bill.

Julian Hattem and Jordain Carney contributed.

- Updated at 7:38 p.m.