Syria refugee fight emerges as government shutdown threat

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The fight over blocking refugees from Syria and Iraq has emerged as one of the biggest hurdles to Congress completing work on a year-long spending bill and preventing a government shutdown.

Lawmakers will return from their Thanksgiving break with just two weeks to reach a deal before a Dec. 11 deadline.

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Conservatives see the government-funding bill as their best vehicle for forcing the White House to bend on the refugee issue.

They’ve been emboldened by their big victory last week, when 47 Democrats defied a White House veto threat and backed a GOP bill boosting screening requirements for Syrian refugees.

The large number of Democrats breaking with the administration shows they are on the winning side, conservatives say.

The fight over adding language restricting Syrian refugees from the United States is one of a number of policy fights that threatens to prevent a deal on funding the government.

The budget accord struck as the final act of former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) set overall spending levels for the next two years, but Congress must still dole out those funds and decide what, if any, policy changes to push as part of that omnibus legislation.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanHouse passes resurrected LGBT measure Ryan seeks to put stamp on GOP in Trump era Overnight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns MORE (R-Wis.) has not been specific but said he expects the funding bill to include some changes to existing policy.

That’s led Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to sound the alarm.

She also declined to offer specifics, but she said Thursday that there were potentially “several hundred poison pill riders” that could sink a funding package if Republicans pushed them — and cause a government shutdown.

Here are some of the most likely flashpoints.

SYRIA REFUGEES

The GOP has clear momentum on this issue, leading some conservatives to call for steps that go further than the House-approved bill.

They want language in the omnibus that blocks any funds from being used to relocate refugees from the region, at least until stricter screening conditions are met.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) has 57 signatures on a letter urging Ryan and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) to bar funds for Syrian refugee relocation, calling it a “Trojan Horse threat to American national security.”

Yet there are risks for Republicans if the White House and Democrats can use the issue to accuse the GOP of forcing a shutdown.

Ryan sought to steer the issue away from the spending bill by moving a stand-alone bill last week. It’s a sign the new Speaker sees a potential political threat to his own party.

At the same time, the number of Democrats who backed the House bill illustrates the pressure on both parties to take action in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Democrats were annoyed with arguments from administration officials last week who believed their party should back Obama on the issue. Some said a closed-door briefing with Democrats actually cost Obama votes.

As a result, there’s no guarantee House Democrats wouldn’t support tough measures on Syrian refugees in a spending bill.

FINANCIAL RULES

Rolling back rules aimed at Wall Street nearly upended a government-funding package at the end of 2014. With another massive funding bill on the horizon, big bank critics are on high alert for a similar push this time around.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Congress’s most prominent bank critic, led the charge against the 2014 bill and is getting a jump on matters again. She took to the Senate floor earlier this month to speak out against similar efforts this time around, and Wall Street reform groups are also pushing back against rider efforts.

Efforts are underway to push tweaks to financial rules through the funding package.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who is also a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, successfully pushed his broad regulatory relief bill into an appropriations bill earlier this year and would like to see it find a home in the omnibus.

There are some sectors where moderate Democrats could align with Republicans on financial rules, particularly when it comes to easing regulations on smaller and mid-size institutions.

One area to watch would be whether there is agreement to boost the current $50 billion threshold at which banks meet heightened regulatory scrutiny under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

Beyond Dodd-Frank, the financial industry is pushing hard to see the omnibus do something to delay efforts by the Labor Department to write new rules governing how retirement advisers dole out advice. President Obama has thrown his weight behind the “fiduciary duty” rules, requiring investment advisers to act solely in the benefit of their clients.

But the industry is fighting the rule every step of the way, arguing it would prove onerous and end up limiting advice available to consumers. Republicans have tried in both the House and Senate to push riders to delay or defund the Labor Department’s efforts.

LABOR

The AFL-CIO is concerned about a number of labor riders that would kill “virtually every pro-worker regulation or initiative the Obama administration has undertaken,” according to Peg Seminario, director of safety and health at the largest labor federation in America.

The Labor Department and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could both be caught in the crossfire over the government funding bill, Seminario warned. She added that the AFL-CIO and International Brotherhood of Teamsters are fighting tooth-and-nail to keep many of these controversial labor riders out.

One of the most bitter fights could play out over the NLRB’s new union election rule. Republicans refer to it as the “ambush election” rule, because it speeds up the process for organizing a union.

President Obama vetoed a GOP attempt to overturn the rule earlier this year, but Republicans aren't giving up. Now, they’re looking to block funding for the bill through a rider in the omnibus.

The NLRB is also facing GOP blowback over policies that hold companies responsible for labor violations committed by their business partners and allow employees to form multiple “micro-unions” within a single company.

The Labor Department’s overtime protections and minimum wage hikes for federal contractors could be targeted as well.

ENVIRONMENT

Climate activists, meanwhile, have their hands full batting down what they see as more than 100 anti-environment policy riders from Republicans.

“Clearly, Republicans are trying to do everything they can ahead of the Paris climate talks to show there is opposition to President Obama’s climate plan,” said Sara Chieffo, vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.

The most controversial riders would roll back rules limiting air and water pollution. Another would block funding for climate change research.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s new ozone standard and carbon emissions rules for power plants are both on the chopping block. So is the "waters of the U.S." rule, which expands the agency’s regulatory authority to smaller lakes and streams.

Climate activists, however, say they will not focus all their attention on efforts to protect these major rules, lest a smaller rule slip past their purview.

“What I’m personally most worried about is that some of the riders that are flying under the radar end up getting included in the budget deal,” Chieffo said.

CIVIL RIGHTS

Civil rights activists are concerned about policy riders that would wipe out rules they say hold colleges accountable for the quality of education they provide students and prevent housing segregation in American neighborhoods.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development's new rules to prevent housing segregation in American neighborhoods — as well as the Education Department's gainful employment rule that penalizes for-profit colleges whose graduates were not adequately prepared to finds jobs — are both potential targets.

“These riders strike at the very heart of civil and human rights,” said Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

“We are very concerned they will impact our communities — our Hispanic communities, our African-American communities, women, low-income individuals, people with disabilities,” she added.