White House tries to shift post-Paris debate to visas

White House tries to shift post-Paris debate to visas
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The White House on Friday tried shift the debate over the response to the Paris terror attacks away from Syrian refugees onto changes to the U.S. visa waiver program.

After suffering a stinging defeat with a House vote to freeze the refugee program, the White House said it is open to tightening the country's waiver policy, which allows people from 38 countries to make short trips to the U.S. without a visa.

"This is an area where additional scrutiny and reforms could be useful in enhancing the national security of the United States," press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One en route to Malaysia.

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Earnest said White House officials are speaking with senators, including Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinOvernight Defense: Armed Services chairman's hopes for Trump | Senators seek to change Saudi 9/11 bill | Palin reportedly considered for VA chief Lawmakers praise defense bill's National Guard bonus fix CIA head warns Trump: Undermining Iran deal would be 'disastrous' MORE (D-Calif.) and Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeSenators crafting bill to limit deportations under Trump Interest groups keep the political ads coming Overnight Healthcare: Cures bill sails through House | Walden frontrunner for Energy and Commerce gavel MORE (R-Ariz.), who have drafted their own proposal to block waivers for European citizens who spent time in Syria or Iraq in the past five years.

Earnest called visa waiver reforms "a fruitful area for possible bipartisan discussion" that "actually will have an impact on strengthening national security."

On Thursday, the House passed legislation that would block Syrian refugees from being resettled in the United States until three federal agencies certify that none of them poses a national security threat. Even though 47 Democrats joined a near veto-proof majority voting for the bill, White House officials said Obama will not back away from his veto threat.

Earnest echoed Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidLawmakers eye early exit from Washington McCain to support waiver for Mattis, Trump team says Reeling Dems look for new leader MORE's (D-Nev.) insistence that the legislation would not pass the Senate, despite the overwhelming House vote.

The overwhelming, bipartisan vote for the refugee bill was a black eye for the White House, which launched a last-minute lobbying push against the proposal that backfired.

Members leaving a briefing with chief of staff Denis McDonoughDenis McDonoughThe Hill's 12:30 Report Obama, Trump display unity in White House meeting Dark days for Obama’s White House MORE and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said their pitch fell flat and even caused some of them to switch their votes from no to yes.

Officials were eager to insist the the White House hadn't lost clout with members of its own party on the issue.

"I’m not sure that the analysis holds that the efforts by the White House were counterproductive," Earnest said. "They just weren’t as productive as we would have liked."

Earnest stressed the White House is in close contact with Feinstein and Flake on their legislation. In addition to Middle East travel restrictions, it would tighten fingerprinting requirements for visitors who qualify for visa waivers.

The spokesman stopped short of endorsing the legislation in its current form, instead voicing broad support for the idea of tightening the rules.

Republicans, and some Democrats, have looked to clamp down on the Syrian refugee program in the wake of the Paris attack, which left 129 dead and injured hundreds more. One of the suspected attackers reportedly entered Europe posing as a Syrian refugee, prompting concerns in the U.S. that Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants could similarly infiltrate the country.

Obama has shown no sign of backing down from his plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year, however. The president and his aides have repeatedly chided Republican politicians during the president's trip to Asia, accusing them of stoking fear over the refugee issue.

In order to prevent terrorism, White House officials said it's more practical to focus on the visa waiver program rather than the refugees, who take 18 to 24 months to get cleared by the federal government.

"If you are someone in Syria who is bound and determined to carry out an act of violence on American soil, you are unlikely to choose a process that requires you wait an average of two years and submit to repeated interviews and background checks by American national security officials," Earnest said.