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Hoyer: 'No doubt' Dems could sustain veto of Syrian refugee bill

Hoyer: 'No doubt' Dems could sustain veto of Syrian refugee bill

House Democrats could sustain a presidential veto of GOP legislation halting the administration's Syrian refugee program, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday.

"There's no doubt in my mind that we would sustain a presidential veto on that," Hoyer told reporters in the Capitol.

The bill, which passed the House last month with broad bipartisan support, is playing a major role in the current debate over a year-end government funding proposal, as Republican leaders attached the provision to their initial version of the omnibus package.

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President Obama has vowed to veto the measure if it hits his desk, and congressional Democratic leaders have singled it out as among the "poison-pill" riders that would sink a deal.

Republicans have pressed hard on the issue, seeing the fight as a winnable one in the wake of last month's terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people and put enormous pressure on Congress to respond with tougher national security protections. They note that the proposal passed easily on the House floor, 289 to 137, with 47 Democrats joining all but two Republicans in support.

Given the total vote count — 426, with eight lawmakers absent — the 289 figure would have been sufficient to override a presidential veto. 

Hoyer, the Democratic whip, acknowledged that, "technically," the tally made the measure veto-proof. But he predicted the numbers would be different if the bill returned to the chamber following a veto. He suggested some Democrats who supported the measure would flip their vote in that case.

"We had a number of people absent, and I think we would have people who would sustain a veto," he said. "Technically, it was veto-proof, but my view as the counter is that we could sustain the veto."

Sponsored by Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, the proposal would toughen the screening process for those fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq by requiring the heads of the FBI, Homeland Security Department and National Intelligence agency to certify that each refugee poses no threat to the United States. 

White House officials have said the current vetting process is plenty robust, warning that the additional requirements are so stringent that they'd effectively end the refugee program altogether.

Hoyer agrees.

"We have a very strong process in place," he said Tuesday.

As a potential substitute response to the Paris attacks, lawmakers in both parties are backing legislation to tighten the U.S. Visa Waiver Program by installing new visa requirements for all foreigners who have visited Syria, Iraq and Sudan in the last five years.

That measure is expected to sail through the House on Tuesday evening, and the Senate is expected to follow suit later in the week. 

Hoyer said Congress should be focusing its Paris response there, not the Syrian refugee program.

"The Visa Waiver Program [is] much, much more worthy of attention because, after all, that was a waiver program. The [refugee] program that the Republicans are talking about is already very carefully calibrated to exclude people who will be threats to the United States," he said. 

"It ought to be a place where Republicans and Democrats can come together and say, 'We've acted.'"