The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House to vote on refugee bill on Thursday, White House threatens veto

Migrants and refugees keep warm around a bonfire as they wait to enter a registration camp after crossing the Greek-Macedonian border near Gevgelija on Nov. 8. (AFP PHOTO / ROBERT ATANASOVSKIROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

House Republicans are moving forward with a plan that would prevent Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the United States unless the government can verify they don’t pose a security a threat.

The opening legislative salvo from House Republicans is expected to be brought to the floor for a vote Thursday as Congress moves quickly to respond to the Paris terror attack.

But the Obama administration on Wednesday issued a veto threat, arguing the legislation “would provide no meaningful additional security for the American people” and only “create significant delays and obstacles in the fulfillment of a vital program that satisfies both humanitarian and national security objectives.”

The bill is based on legislation drafted by Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) that would require the FBI, Homeland Security Department and National Intelligence director to report to Congress that none of the refugees that have been cleared to enter the country are a security threat. The FBI also would have to certify that adequate background checks were conducted on the Syrians and Iraqis seeking to relocate to the United States.

“It would mean a pause in the program until we can be certain beyond any doubt that those coming here are not a threat,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said on Wednesday. “It’s that simple and I don’t think it’s asking too much.”

But the administration warned in its veto threat that the bill “would unacceptably hamper our efforts to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world, many of whom are victims of terrorism” – as well as undermine efforts to address the refugee crisis in other countries seeing far greater inflows, such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Hudson and Republican leaders argue that the bill is “the best chance” Congress has to pass a law to ensure that the vetting process for refugees is robust and does not let terrorist slip through the cracks.

“When the folks in the administration are saying you can’t get this proper vetting, you can’t get a proper background check yet the president says we’re going to bring ‘em all in anyway, you need to say wait a minute, let’s look at this process,” Hudson told reporters Tuesday following a closed-door briefing with DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and FBI Director James Comey.

Hudson has been working on the legislation for several weeks, but after the Paris attacks his office hustled to complete the proposal. A task force of committee chiefs convened by House Republican leaders will continue to explore other security responses the House can consider in the aftermath of the Paris terror attack.

Hudson’s proposal also requires DHS to submit a monthly report to Congress detailing the number of refugees who applied and detailing the reason each refugee not admitted had their application rejected or tabled.

Since the attacks, Republicans have focused on whether and under what circumstances to allow in refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East, arguing ISIS could attempt to enter the United States through the program.

With the legislation, the GOP is trying to force the administration to take full responsibility for any problems that arise from allowing any Iraqi or Syrian refugees into the country.

“The certification is huge, because that means that the secretary and the director of National Intelligence and FBI are putting their name on the line,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told reporters. “They own it – it’s their responsibility.”

Various administration officials spent Wednesday trying to convince members that the vetting procedures already in place are stringent enough to keep the country safe.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) emerged from a closed-door briefing with top administration officials saying their testimony “went a long way” toward addressing his concerns.

But Corker — and some top Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) – said they are still waiting for a Wednesday evening briefing for the full Senate with Johnson and Comey before deciding what legislative response is best.

The House bill seeks to shift more responsibility onto the FBI, in particular, to develop satisfactory background check procedures to screen refugees escaping an environment so disastrous that, they admit, full vetting is challenging.

It would be up to the FBI to set those standards, in concurrence with the DNI and the DHS Secretary, with no specific direction from Congress.

“There are certain political appointees in the administration that we might not put as much faith in,” Hudson added, “but the FBI director is an independent person with integrity.”

Hudson said the inspiration for the measure came earlier this year, when the FBI told lawmakers that officials were doing the best they could to vet Syrian refugees, but were limited in how fully they could.

Leading Democrats have said they are open to strengthening the review and vetting procedures for certain programs, but they are not amenable to hitting “pause” on the program while officials work out an improved way forward.

“Let’s remember, these people are the victims of ISIS. They’re fleeing from ISIS. They are not ISIS,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “So will we now slam the door in their faces?”

McCaul and Hudson also noted that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) is already in communication with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about ways to move the legislation through Congress.

It is unlikely that the Senate would take up the measure before Thanksgiving. But Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) wasn’t very upbeat about House bill’s chances in the Senate, noting that senators would have “a couple of opportunities” to put a hold Syrian and Iraqi refugee admissions.

“You know, standalones are hard to deal with in the Senate, they take so much time. So they could be incorporated into some of the other bills we’ll consider before the break, Christmas,” Cornyn said, adding that the omnibus is an option to address putting a “pause” on Syrian and Iraqi refugee admissions.

The House is expected to follow this legislation with other measures after the holiday, including adding a potential rider withholding funds from certain refugee resettlement programs to the must-pass omnibus spending bill and a measure to address the visa waiver program.

Many lawmakers believe that program, which allows citizens of approved countries to come to the United States. for short-term tourism or business travel, is far more porous to terrorists than the refugee program, where applicants have to go through an 18 to 24 month process before they are let in.

“Obviously it’s a vulnerability when you have 5,000 foreign fighters with western passports,” McCaul said. “We need to tighten up those security gaps.”

Mike DeBonis contributed to this story.