House rushes to halt refugees

Greg Nash

With Americans fearing a Paris-style attack at home, the House is rushing to vote this week on legislation that would temporarily halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S.

Republican lawmakers are feeling enormous pressure to act before they leave town on Thursday for a 10-day Thanksgiving recess. Some said they’ve received hundreds of phone calls from constituents asking Congress to stop President Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 refugees from war-torn Syria.

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The House is acting quickly after a string of terrorist attacks in Paris killed 129 people. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, (ISIS) has claimed responsibility. At least one of the attackers appeared to have posed as a refugee from Syria to gain entry to France, sparking a Republican backlash at resettlement efforts in the U.S.

“Americans are following Paris, they’re worried about their security and about something happening here at home,” said Rep. Bill Flores (Texas), the chairman of the 170-member Republican Study Committee, whose phone has been ringing nonstop. “They don’t like the fact you’ve got a bunch of unvetted refugees coming into the country, and they really don’t trust the president.”

A counterterrorism task force, led by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), huddled Tuesday to discuss several possible legislative options. After the meeting, McCarthy said the House would vote Thursday on a bill by Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) that would require refugees from Syria and Iraq to go through FBI background checks for the Homeland Security Department to guarantee that they are not security threats.

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanJustice Kennedy again steps to the left Ryan: I might have voted for Brexit NRA, Planned Parenthood top Trump, Clinton in favorability MORE (R-Wis.) characterized the Paris attacks as “pure evil” and an “act of war.” The recently elected Speaker called for a “pause” on the Syrian refugee program until tighter restrictions are put in place — a message echoed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report If 'bipartisanship' is now a dirty word, how about a rebranding? Trump 'absolutely' qualified to be president, GOP rep says MORE (R-Ky.).

“Our nation has always been welcoming, but we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion,” Ryan said after meeting with rank-and-file House Republicans. “This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.”

The House GOP plan appeared to find some bipartisan support on the other side of the Capitol.

New York Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerJuan Williams: GOP sounds the sirens over Trump Gun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA This week: Senate showdown over gun control MORE, a top Democratic leader, acknowledged that a pause on Syrian refugees might be “necessary,” though he wants to attend a classified Senate briefing Wednesday on the Paris attacks before rendering a final verdict.

In a letter, centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) urged Obama to stop the flow of Syrian refugees until federal authorities can guarantee they have no terrorist ties.

House Democrats, however, balked at the GOP proposal, arguing that refugees already are subjected to a rigorous screening process. Tens of thousands of refugees are resettled in the U.S. every year, but since October 2013, only about 2,100 refugees from Syria have been admitted, Democrats said.  

“It would betray our proudest values as Americans to slam the door in the face of desperate mothers seeking a safe place for their children,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

Some of the fiercest opposition to Obama’s plan has come from U.S. governors, more than half of whom have declared they will not accept refugees from Syria in their states.

But senior Obama administration officials said Tuesday that governors technically can’t block resettlement of refugees, stressing that refugees are free to travel anywhere in the U.S. once they arrive.

Of course, states that are open to accepting refugees could be prioritized over others.

“We don’t want to send refugees anywhere where they would not be welcomed,” an official said.

In the face of growing opposition from governors and lawmakers, administration officials elaborated on the stringent screening process that refugees go through, which can take between 18 and 24 months.

And refugees from Syria are already required to go through an additional level of security checks that are not required of applicants from other countries.

The State Department is raising the overall refugee cap from 70,000 to 85,000 in the next fiscal year in order to accommodate 10,000 Syrian refugees.

Earlier this week, some House Republicans had urged leaders to strip out funding for the refugee program from the omnibus spending bill that must be passed before Dec. 11 to avert a government shutdown. That would set up a spending showdown with Obama and his Democratic allies over the refugee crisis.

But even some of the most conservative members of the GOP conference warned that waiting several weeks to address the refugee issue might be too late.

“We should move on this as quickly as possible,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus. “We can’t go home without addressing this.”