Facing heat, Dems defend backing GOP refugee bill

Facing heat, Dems defend backing GOP refugee bill
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A handful of House Democrats are racing to defend their support for legislation imposing new conditions on the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the face of blowback from human rights groups and other liberal advocates.

Almost 50 Democrats bucked President Obama and other Democratic leaders Thursday to join nearly every Republican in passing the bill, which toughens screenings on refugees arriving from Syria and Iraq before they can enter the country. The final vote was 289 to 137.

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The legislation has been hammered by many liberals, who see it as a politically motivated — some say racist — effort to cripple the program and keep the refugees out of the country altogether. 

But supporting Democrats disagree, arguing that the extra screenings required under the bill are simply a commonsense strategy for bolstering national security in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks in Paris, which left 129 people dead and hundreds more injured.

On Friday, several of those Democrats took to the cable shows or issued statements aimed at explaining their vote.

Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) said it's “absolutely false” that the legislation would block the refugees altogether.

“There's been misrepresentation in the press, just like you did a minute ago about how this would limit Syrian refugees into this country,” Schrader, a Blue Dog Democrat, said Friday in an interview with CNN's Carol Costello. “I ask everyone in Oregon and the country just read the bill. It's all three pages — very straightforward.

“People in this country are afraid,” Schrader added. “They deserve to know that the United States government and their Congress is doing everything to make sure that the refugees that need to get out of these horrible places can do so safely and they do not pose a threat to America.”

Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas), another yes vote, delivered a similar message Friday, issuing a statement designed to remedy what he calls a “misunderstanding about the content” of the bill.

“Let me be clear, the American SAFE Act does not end the current resettlement program, send back any refugee who currently resides in the United States, or close our borders,” he said. “Our current refugee resettlement program is already an extensive process, and this legislation simply enhances the current process by requiring the Director of the FBI to certify to the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence that each refugee we accept does not pose a national security risk.”

Veasey's statement includes a link to the proposal.

The remarks follow an outpouring of criticism from many liberals, who accuse the bill's supporters of exploiting public fear to score political points. The critics have likened the GOP's response to historical efforts to detain Japanese Americans and deny Jews entry into the U.S. in the name of national security — refugees forced to return to the horrors of Hitler's Germany.

“We cannot repeat our mistakes born from racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) said after the vote.

A number of those liberal critics have reserved a particular venom for the Democrats who backed the bill. 

“Disgusted to see some House Democrats join crazy Republicans in stoking mass hysteria on the refugee issue,” Kal Penn, a movie actor and former Obama staffer, tweeted Thursday. 

“@RepJaredPolis I'm looking at you,” Penn added, referring to the Colorado Democrat who voted yes.

The significance of Thursday's vote remains unclear. Senate Democrats appear to be lining up against the legislation, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted tersely Thursday that the measure would never pass the upper chamber. Additionally, Obama has threatened to veto the bill if it reaches his desk. 

But critics of the legislation have warned that, even if the bill is never enacted, House passage has already sent a damaging signal to the world that the U.S. is unwelcoming to certain categories of people.

“A piece of legislation is more than the to wits, to woes and the various positions,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday just before the vote. “It is a message to the world about our country.”

Democratic supporters of the bill had another take, contending that lawmakers also had a responsibility to send a message to Americans that Congress is on the job of protecting the homeland. In that context, they said, the administration's argument that additional screenings are too burdensome to make the program workable didn't hold water.

“I felt that those were, frankly, bureaucratic arguments about convenience,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who supported the bill. “Well, that's not a compelling or cogent argument for a no vote the week after the Paris tragedy.”