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White House moves on new visa waiver regulations, asks Congress for more reforms

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said. the House will vote on changes to the visa waiver program before the end of 2016. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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The White House got the jump on Congress by announcing changes Monday to the visa waiver program as the GOP House leadership promised a vote on its own reforms before the end of the year.

But it is not yet clear how the new White House regulations – or proposals for cooperation with Congress – will be received in the House, where leaders say that a bill to address problems with the waiver program is coming.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that he expects the House to vote on changes to the  program before the end of the year.

A task force of committee chairmen – including the heads of the House Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, Appropriations, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Intelligence Committees – is expected to present a proposal Tuesday, McCarthy said.

The visa waiver program —  which was enacted in 1986 and brings almost 20 million people to the U.S. every year — is receiving renewed scrutiny following the Paris terror attacks. Covering 38 countries, 30 of which are in Europe, citizens of waiver countries can enter the U.S. with minimal screening. That makes it much harder to identify and weed out European nationals seeking to enter the U.S. after traveling to ISIS training camps in other nations and then returning to Europe.

On Monday, the White House pledged to “immediately” implement reforms to record which travelers had recently been to “countries constituting a terrorist safe haven;” review the quality of terrorism information sharing between the U.S. and waiver countries; and help countries improve their collection of biometric data, especially when it comes to screening asylum-seekers and refugees.

The White House also promised to step up penalties for countries and airlines that fall short of the program’s security standards.

The White House also listed areas in which it expects to work with Congress to further improve the waiver program, including efforts to identify people who may have been to terrorist training camps; fast-track the requirement that all waiver participants have passports with embedded security chips; and collect the biometric data of passengers before they board flights to the U.S.

Several of those points are expected to be addressed in a bill from Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to strengthen the waiver program. Feinstein said prior to the Thanksgiving recess that her bill would require the passports of those from waiver countries to contain security chips and preclude individuals who traveled to Iraq or Syria in the last five years from participating in the waiver program. The measure is expected to be introduced soon.

The House majority leader also previewed the proposals under consideration, including a requirement that waiver countries use passports with embedded biometric technology and participate in an international database of lost and stolen passports – another area for improvement that the White House listed among its suggestions for future cooperation with Congress.

Those proposals are similar to the ones made by lawmakers months before the Paris attacks – some of which were adopted by the Department of Homeland Security over the summer.

In August, DHS introduced new screening and information-sharing requirements for waiver countries; this time last year, DHS also added new data fields to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, the screening program for  waiver travelers.

Off the Hill, the U.S. Travel Association, which warned against efforts to “scapegoat” the waiver program in the wake of the Paris attacks, said that it could support the White House changes.

“The American travel community continues to be amendable to enhancements to the Visa Waiver Program,” Association president and CEO Roger Dow said in a statement Monday. “Travel cannot thrive without security, and even the most successful programs should be continually evaluated and updated to reflect the ever-evolving security landscape.”

Mike DeBonis and Catherine Ho contributed to this report.