White House struggling to sell refugee argument to wary Dems

Top White House officials are struggling to convince on-the-fence House Democrats to oppose a Republican plans to halt the flow of Syrian refugees to the United States.

Department of Homeland (DHS) Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough were dispatched to the Capitol to rally House Democrats Thursday morning, just hours before the vote. Their pitch, according to many in the room, didn’t resonate.

“[It’s] not going over well,” according to an aide in the room, who said Johnson and McDonough went too far “in the weeds.”

“[Their] message on this is too complicated,” the aide said.

The Republican-led legislation, which GOP leaders have rushed to the floor in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, would bolster the screening process for those fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq by requiring the heads of the FBI, DHS and National Intelligence Agency to certify that each refugee poses no threat to the U.S.

White House officials have said the new certification requirements are so stringent that they’d effectively end the refugee program — an argument they amplified to the Democrats Thursday.

But some Democrats countered that President Obama frequently performs such certifications, according to the aide.

Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) was one voice pushing back hard, telling Johnson and McDonough that the vote is a radioactive one for many Democrats following so quickly on the heels of the Paris attacks, the aide said.

Leaving the meeting, Johnson defended the current vetting process for the Syrian refugees, describing it as “extraordinarily thorough” and arguing that legislation to make it tougher is unnecessary.

The Republican bill, he said, “seeks to micromanage the process in a way that is counterproductive to national security, to our humanitarian obligations and to the overall ability of us to focus on homeland security.”

He said any failure on the part of the administration to articulate that message — both to Congress and the public — is not for a lack of trying.

“All I can do is keep repeating what I’ve been saying all week,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you have to say something 10 times before somebody will notice.”

McDonough, leaving the meeting, declined to comment.

Democratic leaders, who are lining up in opposition to the GOP bill, are not officially whipping their troops against it. But behind House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), they are clearly scrambling to find enough Democratic opposition to sustain Obama’s promised veto.

It’s unclear how that math will play out. The Republicans control 246 seats, but a number of conservatives have said they’ll oppose the GOP bill because it’s not tough enough. That means Republican leaders would need roughly 50 Democrats to join them on a veto override vote.

Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), a liberal who’s voting against the Republicans’ bill, said the push-back from Democrats against the administration is understandable given that the Paris attacks happened so recently.

“Members are grumbling because there’s a fear factor in this country,” Farr said. “People have stopped listening. They’ve already made up their minds. They want to react to fear.”

Tags Denis McDonough Sam Farr
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