The House is poised to approve legislation on Thursday freezing the flow of refugees from Syria, placing Senate Democrats in political jeopardy.
Democrats are caught between their support for President Obama, who the White House promises will veto the legislation, and public opinion polls that show the GOP-backed measure is popular.
The only question in the House is how much Democratic support the legislation will muster. One Democratic lawmaker predicted between 10 and 30 Democrats would back it.
That would put a luster of bipartisanship on the bill, making it that much more difficult to vote against it in the Senate.
Republicans are confident they have Democrats on the run. They believe Obama and his party will be hurt politically if they oppose the measure, which would require that the flow of refugees be halted until the administration certifies that none of them represent a security threat.
“From a political standpoint the Republicans have a 15-point advantage on national security issues over Obama and the Democrats, and it’s only going to grow if the public sees the Democrats as being weak on security issues,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster.
“I see it as Democrats working from weakness and just making themselves even weaker,” he added.
While many House liberals are likely to oppose the House bill, centrist Senate Democrats intent on regaining the majority in next year’s election face a tougher choice in backing Obama.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Senate Democratic leader — who 10 years ago raised the alarm over the prospect of a company owned by the government of Dubai managing American seaports — said this week that “a pause may be necessary” in the refugee resettlement.
Other Senate Democrats are raising questions about the vetting process.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson Tuesday with a list of more than a dozen questions.
“It is critical that the United States take urgent and comprehensive steps to ensure our nation is doing absolutely everything it can to protect our citizens against similar acts,” he wrote in reference to last week’s Paris terrorist attacks.
Some Democrats worry the administration hasn’t done a good enough job explaining to the public the process for examining refugees.
“If they had acted in a proactive way, I think you would have seen a lot less extreme rhetoric,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Late Wednesday, Senate Democrats offered an alternative that could give them some cover.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Thursday will introduce legislation blocking visa waivers for European citizens traveling to the United States who spent time in Syria or Iraq over the past five years. The legislation is co-sponsored by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
“Let’s say France has had 2000 people leave to go and fight [in Syria.] They’re a visa waiver country so the people come back to France and then they come into the United States. The bill we would propose would strictly limit that,” she said.
She added the legislation would tighten the fingerprinting requirements for visitors who qualify for visa waivers.
“Currently, in most cases, the fingerprints are checked after they arrive in the United States. They should be done before,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.).
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said polls show voters are concerned about the security threats posed by migrants fleeing violence in Syria. One of the Paris attackers entered Europe through Greece posing as a Syrian refugee.
“It’s clear that public opinion is registering some legitimate concern about bringing large numbers of people without being completely vetted,” Wicker said.
A Bloomberg Politics poll released Wednesday found 53 percent oppose opening the nation’s borders to Syrian refugees, while 28 percent support Obama’s plan. A separate online poll by NBC News/SurveyMonkey found 56 percent oppose allowing Syrian refugees entry.
More than half of the nation’s governors have spoken out against resettling Syrian asylum seekers in their states, which Kaine said likely would not have happened had the administration done a better job publicizing the rigors of the review process.
Republicans captured the Senate in 2002 by portraying Democrats as weak on security in that midterm election after they voted against legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security because of a labor issue. They believe the security threat posed by refugees and fear over the radicalization of immigrant Muslim communities could become a potent issue.
While Republicans believe they have the upper hand politically, they are privately worried the issue could backfire on them if it gets mixed up with a year-end omnibus spending measure.
While it would be difficult for Democrats to block a standalone bill that requires the administration to vouch for each and every refugee, it would be a different story if language stopping the resettlement program threatened a government shutdown.
Democrats could turn the tables by arguing that Republicans were holding up government funding to score political points, threatening the ability of security agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to do their jobs.
“Let’s not forget they were the party that threatened to shut down the Department of Homeland Security over immigration, and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.] allowed the Patriot Act program to go dark for several days because of missteps,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) appears determined to keep the refugee issue separate from the year-end spending deal, and McConnell is poised to follow his lead.
But some Senate Republicans argue the hot-button issue should be attached to the omnibus to improve the chances it reaches Obama’s desk.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) have urged colleagues to add language blocking Syrian refugees to spending legislation.
Mike Lillis and Cristina Marcos contributed.