Speaker Ryan: Syrian refugee bill does not have a 'religious test'

Greg Nash

Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanGOP leaders express reservations a day after 9/11 veto override White House: Congress has 'buyer's remorse' on 9/11 bill Anti-trade senators say chamber would be crazy to pass TPP MORE (R-Wis.) on Wednesday pushed back against arguments that a House bill hitting the floor this week to enhance security screenings for Syrian refugees will filter people based on religion.

“People understand the plight of those fleeing the Middle East. But they also want basic assurances for the safety of this country,” Ryan said from the House floor. “We can be compassionate and we can also be safe.”

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The bill, which is slated for a House vote on Thursday, would prevent any refugees from Syria or Iraq from being admitted to the U.S. unless the FBI, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Director of National Intelligence can certify to Congress that each refugee does not pose a security threat.

“I don’t think it’s asking too much. I also want to point out that we will not have a religious test. Only a security test,” Ryan said. 

The legislation is a response to last week's terrorist attack in Paris — claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — which left at least 129 people dead and hundreds more injured.

Some Democrats have accused Republicans of wanting to impose restrictions based on religion for refugees trying to flee the violence caused by ISIS in the Middle East. Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzFour states sue to stop internet transition House approves stopgap funding, averting costly shutdown Overnight Tech: TV box plan faces crucial vote | Trump transition team to meet tech groups | Growing scrutiny of Yahoo security MORE (R-Texas), for instance, said he will offer legislation banning Muslim Syrian refugees from entering the United States.

Cruz's push drew a rebuke from President Obama, who called it "shameful."

House Democratic leaders are lining up against the refugee proposal, arguing it would erect barriers so restrictive that it would effectively end the refugee program altogether.  

Several Democratic committee heads on Wednesday accused Republicans of exploiting the Paris tragedy to end the refugee program — a notion they deemed un-American. 

"Refugees, and refugees from this region specifically, already undergo a far more rigorous screening process than anyone else seeking admission to this country, including background checks, national security vetting, biometric identifiers, and interviews," Reps. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffWH tried to stop Intel Dems' statement on Russian hacking: report 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 (D-Calif.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said in a joint statement opposing the bill. 

"The House Republican legislation would immediately shut down all refugee resettlement from Syria and Iraq — possibly for many years — and severely handicap future refugee resettlement around the world."

The Democrats' opposition will likely be inconsequential in this week's House vote, where Republicans are expected to pass the bill despite some division in the conference. But it presages a tough road in the Senate, where the filibuster gives Democrats more leverage, and may foreshadow a veto threat by Obama, who has not yet weighed in on the measure. 

Sponsored by Reps. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) and Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), the GOP bill would require the FBI — in addition to the DHS — to perform a background check on each Syrian and Iraqi seeking refuge in the U.S. 

It also requires the heads of those two agencies, as well as the director of National Intelligence, to certify to Congress that "the covered alien is not a threat to the security of the United States."

As an additional security measure, it also requires the DHS inspector general to review those certifications and provide detailed reports to Congress. 

Supporters of the legislation say it's a commonsense strategy for protecting Americans from terrorists who may infiltrate the refugee system. Fueling their argument, at least one of the Paris attackers reportedly did just that.

“America has a proud tradition of welcoming refugees into our country, and we lead the world in humanitarian assistance," McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Tuesday. "However, we also must put proper measures in place to ensure our country’s safety.”

Democrats have a sharply different view. While emphasizing Congress's obligation to keep Americans safe with robust screenings, they also want to continue the refugee program for the sake of those fleeing the violence in Syria and Iraq. 

“Let’s remember: These people are the victims of ISIS. They’re fleeing from ISIS. They are not ISIS," Rep. Elliot Engel (N.Y.), senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday. "So will we now slam the door in their faces?"

If the bill is not enacted as a stand-alone measure, it could resurface next month as a rider to a year-end spending package — a strategy already being pushed by several leading Senate Republicans.

This story was updated at 5:29 p.m.