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House passes bill to tighten flow of Syrian refugees over Obama’s objections

House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke about the efforts from Republicans in the House to pass legislation pausing the refugee resettlement program. (Video: AP, Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

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 terrorist attacks in Paris.

The vote was 289 to 137.

The bill’s fate, however, is uncertain after President Obama delivered a veto threat Wednesday, Senate Democrats vowed to block the bill, and key lawmakers across Capitol Hill said they are more concerned about security vulnerabilities other than the refugee program.

The vote gives House Republicans some leverage because Thursday’s tally, which included 47 Democrats, is enough to override a veto. Attention now turns to what the Senate does with the legislation; Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) moved late Thursday to put the bill on the Senate calendar, but a decision likely on whether to proceed with it won’t come until after Thanksgiving.

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-Wis.) 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 United States, and Homeland Security and intelligence officials would have to certify that they are not security threats.

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

Briefing reporters Thursday afternoon, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and FBI Director James B. Comey said the House bill would create significant administrative burdens.

“To ask me to have my FBI director or other members of the administration to make personal guarantees would effectively grind the program to a halt,” Lynch said, calling the bill “an impractical response to, really, a much larger problem.”

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 United States with much less rigorous vetting than refugees get.

“I don’t support stopping the refugee program,” Schiff said. “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 did not press 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 needed to make a better case for opposing the GOP bill or take a more aggressive stance on other security threats.

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Two high-ranking administration officials, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, briefed House Democrats on 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] 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 voted 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 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.”

Comey told reporters the FBI would be reticent to give absolute assurance that any refugee poses no danger: “The FBI’s business is to assess relative degrees of risk and try and mitigate risk. It’s very, very difficult for us to say as to anyone coming into the country that there is zero risk.”

But Maloney, a former senior 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 — at least six Democrats would have to join the 54 Republicans in order to jump procedural hurdles to even debate the bill — and Reid said he doubts Obama would have to make good on his veto threat. “Don’t worry, it won’t get passed,” he told reporters Thursday.

But the House passage of the refugee bill increased speculation that a similar measure might be attached to the must-pass spending bill that will be negotiated ahead of a Dec. 11 funding deadline. The significant number of Democratic votes the bill attracted could make it difficult to strip from a larger bill jam-packed with divisive policy provisions.

Other senators, after several days of anxiety over the refugee program, tried to direct public attention to 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 terrorist 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.

[Visa waiver program poses greater terrorist threat than refugee admissions, lawmakers say]

”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 attackers 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 Senate Foreign Relations Committee, struck a similar tone, calling visa waivers “much more of a concern, frankly, than refugees,” as did Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “The visa waiver program potentially is the place where there’s greater gaps, possibly, than the refugee program itself,” Corker said.

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 that 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 and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.