Senate Democrats will filibuster legislation halting the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States, after it passed the House on Thursday one vote short of a veto-proof majority.
Republicans think they have a slam-dunk political winner and predict Democrats will pay a price for blocking the measure, which has strong bipartisan support. Forty-seven Democrats voted for it in the lower chamber.
But Senate Democrats believe they can flip the issue by shifting the debate to the roughly 20 million people who come into the country each year through the Visa Waiver Program. They also want to put Republicans on the spot by forcing a vote on a provision to bar people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns.
“The problem is not with refugees,” Reid said. “I don’t think we’ll be dealing with it over here.”
When asked about the prospect of Obama vetoing the legislation, Reid said, “Don’t worry, it won’t get passed. Next question?”
A spokeswoman for Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) declined to comment on Reid’s statement.
Democratic leadership aides say they’ll be able to sustain a filibuster and expect no more than a few defections.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday evening began the so-called Rule 14 process to put the House bill on the legislative calendar, setting up a possible vote the Wednesday or Thursday after Thanksgiving.
GOP leaders say the bill got such an overwhelming vote in the House that it deserves to come straight to the floor.
“My personal preference would be to take it up and pass it in the Senate and send it to the president,” said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).
McConnell also teed up a bill sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a GOP presidential candidate, to block the entry of extremists into the United States under the refugee program.
Senate GOP sources say they may add the House-passed measure onto a year-end spending bill to put more pressure on Democrats to back it.
Cornyn said the House bill is a candidate for including in the omnibus “if it doesn’t pass otherwise.”
But the maneuver could blow up in their faces if the government shuts down because of a political standoff. Democrats have a record of success blaming shutdowns on the GOP, something even McConnell recognizes.
A Senate GOP leadership aide said no final decision has been made on how to proceed.
Republicans say they’ll use the vote on the House bill in political ads during next year’s presidential election.
“We’ll crucify them,” said a senior House GOP aide.
GOP strategists point to a Bloomberg Politics national poll out this week showing that 53 percent of Americans say the United States should not accept Syrian refugees.
Twenty-eight percent say Obama should go ahead with his plan to resettle 10,000 Syrians seeking asylum, according to the survey.
So far, however, no Senate Democrat has said he or she would vote for the House bill.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat from West Virginia, earlier this week signed a letter to Obama urging that no refugee related to the Syrian crisis be admitted to the country unless federal authorities can guarantee they are not supporters or sympathizers of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
But on Thursday he held back from committing to the House bill.
"I was concerned we were shortcutting the vetting to meet a quota. … I was told absolutely not, there would be no shortcutting of any vetting process," he said a day after attending a classified briefing with senior administration officials.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the vice chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, plans to introduce legislation after the Thanksgiving recess that would block from the Visa Waiver Program people who have traveled to Iraq or Syria in the past five years.
It would also require visitors to the U.S. to provide fingerprints and photos before arriving.
Democratic leaders are pushing it as an alternative to the House bill to provide political cover to their colleagues.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), the Senate’s most endangered Democratic incumbent, was noncommittal Thursday about supporting the House legislation.
"I think we just need to make sure that our country is secure, that we've got an excellent vetting process in place and that we continue to honor our principle — our American principle — of being there for people that are fleeing terrorism and persecution," he said.
Democratic leaders are trying to shift the focus away from the House bill, which they argue is too narrowly targeted on refugees who already undergo rigorous review, to security gaps in the Visa Waiver Program.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), another centrist Democrat, said she is concerned about visa waivers and reviewing the vetting process for refugees from around the world, not just Syria.
“My focus right now is on reviewing the vetting process for refugees coming into the U.S. from any country, not just Syria,” she said. “On Thursday, I said I would help introduce a bipartisan bill to make sure [ISIS] terrorists are not able to slip into the U.S. through the Visa Waiver Program."
McConnell has to worry about losing votes on his own side.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said Thursday evening he does not know how he’ll vote, because he believes the House bill does not go far enough.
“It does very little,” he said. “But it does something so I’ll evaluate it. I hoped they would do more. Basically it just says the president gets to bring in as many refugees as he wants.”
The House bill would require the secretary of Homeland Security, with the concurrence of the FBI director and the Director of National Intelligence, to affirm to Congress that every refugee admitted is not a security threat.
Sessions has proposed legislation that would require Congress to hold a separate vote on Obama’s refugee resettlement program and require the Congressional Budget Office to score long-term federal spending on refugees, including welfare and entitlement spending.
- This story was updated at 10:51 a.m. on Nov. 20.