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Opinion House Republicans push for ‘pause’ to Syrian refugee program

House Speaker Paul Ryan calls for a pause in the U.S. program to resettle Syrian refugees in the United States after the Islamic State attacks on Paris. (Video: Reuters)

With Republican presidential candidates and GOP governors sounding an increasingly strident alarm about the program to admit Syrian refugees into the country, House Speaker Paul Ryan today announced that he would seek a “pause” in the program.

However, the House GOP leadership is ruling out any kind of changes to the program that would prohibit the entry of Muslim Syrian refugees in particular, which is something that Senator Ted Cruz has pushed for.

“There will be no religious test, only a security one,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker Ryan, emails.

The Texas Senator and presidential candidate has announced that he’s drafting legislation that would bar Muslim Syrian refugees from entering the United States. He has explicitly described this as a national security imperative. “What Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are proposing is that we bring to this country tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees,” Cruz has said. “I have to say particularly in light of what happened in Paris, that’s nothing short of lunacy.”

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush has flirted with similar ideas, claiming that we should “focus our efforts” on the “Christians that are being slaughtered.” Donald Trump has not commented directly on whether Muslim Syrian refugees should be subjected to a religion-specific ban, though he has said we may have to close some mosques in the United States, so he may soon align himself with Cruz on the refugee question.

With the GOP leadership seemingly ruling out any such measure, it’s possible conservatives in the Cruz and Trump camp could continue arguing that Muslim refugees pose a particular threat and thus should be subjected to special restrictions. That could emerge as a point of contention.

But Democrats I spoke to today were relieved to hear that the GOP leadership is not pursuing anything along these lines.

“It’s a wise decision,” Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Dem on the House Intelligence Committee, told me. “I don’t think we ever want to establish a religious test. That would be antithetical to the country’s traditions and also sends a terrible message. This is a war of ideas with ISIS, and to exclude refugees of particular religious backgrounds would be a real setback in that war of ideas.”

It’s unclear as of now what House Republicans can do to halt the Syrian refugee program. Today Ryan announced that they were seeking a “pause” in the program. House Republicans have set up a task force to address the refugee crisis, and Republicans are expected to vote on something this week, but it’s unclear what. Among the ideas that have been floated are plans to freeze Obama’s refugee plan until various requirements are met and assurances can be made that no terrorists will be admitted. Another possibility has been that Republicans might seek to defund the refugee plan as part of the appropriations process, setting up a possible government shutdown fight, but Ryan appeared to rule that out today.

And so, we’ll have to wait to see what sort of legislative response Republicans do produce before knowing what their true intentions are. It’s not clear a short-term delay in the program would make much of a difference, because the vetting process for refugees is already long as it is. The Obama administration strongly defended the refugee program today on a conference call with reporters, arguing that the refugee program has been in place for decades and that three million people had already been admitted. The officials also argued that Syrian refugees are already subjected to the most rigorous screening process. Politifact talked to experts and determined that process can take up to two years.

Also see CNN’s explainer piece for more detail. It notes that thus far just over 2,000 Syrian refugeees have already been settled here, and that Obama is looking to bring in another 10,000 in the current fiscal year. It also notes that the President has the authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act to set refugee quotas, in “consultation” with Congress, which appears to mean that Congress would have to pass something actively restricting Obama from setting particular quotas in order to impose its will, something that Obama could presumably veto.

So it’s unclear what kind of “pause” House Republicans can effect. And at any rate, all indications are that Speaker Ryan is looking for some kind of way to avoid a confrontation over the refugee program, at a time when conservatives may continue advocating for more aggressive action. It’s possible, for instance, that Ryan could seek additional screening processes designed to further boost oversight, but not to block the program.

Dem Rep. Schiff suggested one approach Republicans might adopt: acknowledge the program actually is secure, but seek ways to constructively improve on it, to reassure the American people.

“It’s a long, laborious process right now, and frankly, it’s been a very successful program, given the hundreds of thousands of refugees we’ve taken in since 9/11 and given how minimal the problems have been,” Schiff says. “The system has worked very well. But any good system can be improved. It’s hard to say how Congress could take immediate action to bring about a halt. So cooperation is a far better strategy if the goal is really to find any constructive improvements that can be made.”