The House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed legislation aimed at tightening controls on refugees from Syria and Iraq, in what Republican leaders say is a swift and strong response to last week’s terror attacks in Paris.
The vote was 289 to 137.
The bill’s fate, however, is uncertain after President Obama delivered a veto threat Wednesday and key senators said they are more concerned about security vulnerabilities other than the refugee program.
The vote gives House Republicans some leverage because Thursday’s tally is enough to override a veto with more than two-thirds of those voting supporting the bill, including 47 Democrats. Attention now turns to what the Senate does with the legislation, a decision that likely won’t come until after Thanksgiving.
But efforts to place new security constraints on Obama’s pledge to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States over the coming year could bleed into negotiations over a government spending bill that must be completed in early December, with Republicans and some Democrats seizing on polls showing that Americans are deeply concerned about a potential terrorist infiltration.
“This reflects our values; this reflects our responsibilities,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wisc.) said of the legislation. “We cannot and should not wait to act, not when our national security is at stake.”
The Republican bill would require the FBI director to certify the background investigation for each Syrian or Iraqi refugee admitted to the U.S., and Homeland Security and intelligence officials would have to certify that they are not security threats.
The Obama administration said Wednesday that the bill would “introduce unnecessary and impractical requirements that would unacceptably hamper our efforts to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, said the bill distracts from more significant vulnerabilities — such as the State Department’s visa waiver program, which last year allowed 20 million visitors from 38 countries access to the U.S. with less rigorous vetting.
“The terms may appears benign, but the impact of requiring certification would bring the process to a halt,” Schiff said. “I don’t support stopping the refugee program. I think it’s a multi-year rigorous vetting process and far more intensive than anything we see with people coming from Europe on the visa waiver program.”
But House Democratic leaders are not pressing their colleagues to oppose the bill.
“I think everybody ought to vote their conscience on that,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a member of leadership.
Many House Democrats said Wednesday that the Obama administration needs to make a better case for opposing the GOP bill or take a more aggressive stance on other security threats.
Two high-ranking administration officials, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, briefed House Democrats Thursday morning, shortly before the first votes on the refugee bill.
Several Democrats said the officials failed to make a persuasive case that the GOP bill would create an unreasonable burden on the refugee screening process.
“I anticipated that the Republicans would offer some appalling bill … but what they’ve offered is, they’ve offered a bill that basically says, if the process is good, sign on the dotted line, said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), who said he planned to vote for the measure.
Himes said he’d be willing to oppose the bill if he believed it would halt the screening process, but he said the officials were unable to make that case.
“They have persuaded us that this is a really good process, but they don’t want to certify it,” he said. “That’s an inherently difficult argument to make.”
Rep. Sean P. Maloney (D-N.Y.) was among this in the briefing who pressed the officials to explain why the Republican bill was unworkable but left unsatisfied.
“People are understandably worried, and they have a right to expect to that their government certify the safety of the refugees,” he said. “I believe we have a good process; we should be able to certify folks.”
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the bill represented an “obstacle” to the resettlement of those fleeing terrorism, rather than a viable way to improve national security.
“You cannot have thousands of applications reviewed by the top law enforcement people in our country,” she said, adding that it “sends the complete wrong message” to the world.
But Maloney, a former White House aide, said he believed the bill could be implemented with a single presidential order deeming those refugees who pass the existing screening process as certified.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted the House legislation wouldn’t get through the Senate and said he doubts Obama would have to make good on his veto threat.
“Don’t worry, it won’t get passed,” Reid told reporters Thursday.
In the Senate, after several days of anxiety over the refugee program, attention turned toward the visa waiver program.
Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Wednesday they plan to introduce legislation tightening that program by ending visa waivers for anyone who has traveled to Syria or Iraq in the past five years.
The perpetrators of Friday’s terror attacks who have thus far been identified were French nationals who, because of that, would have been eligible to enter the United States with only minimal prior screening.
”The problem is the European communities, which are generally all visa waiver communities,” Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Wednesday after exiting a closed-door briefing with homeland security officials. “Let’s say France has had 2,000 people leave to go and fight. They are visa waiver countries, so the people come back to France and then they [can] come into the United States. The bill we would propose would strictly limit that.”
Those seeking visa waivers must fill out an online application that is checked against security databases, and applicants are routinely denied waivers. But securing a traditional visa involves a more rigorous process, usually involving an in-person interview at an American consulate abroad.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, said several of the Paris attacks were on no-fly lists but that others were not — and, theoretically, could have boarded planes to the United States with French passports and entered the country with a visa waiver. ”That is a vulnerability far greater than 70,000 thoroughly vetted refugees,” Durbin said.
Flake, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, struck a similar tone, calling visa waivers “much more of a concern, frankly, than refugees,” as did Foreign Affairs Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.): “The visa waiver program potentially is the place where there’s greater gaps, possibly, than the refugee program itself.”
The Department of Homeland Security made some changes to the visa waiver program in August in response to similar concerns about the threat from radicals who hold European passports. Countries who wish to participate in the program must use passports that include biometric data about their holders and share more data about travelers.
Feinstein said in January, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, that she planned to introduce legislation aimed at tightening gaps in the program, but those plans did not advance.
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.