As Republicans squabbled over Donald Trump’s controversial proposal to bar all Muslims from traveling to the United States, the House on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a bill imposing new restrictions on a visa waiver program that currently welcomes roughly 20 million people into the country each year.
The bill, which was approved on a 407 to 19 vote, would increase information sharing between the United States and the 38 countries whose passport-holders are allowed to visit the country without getting a visa, while also attempting to weed out travelers who have visited certain countries where they may have been radicalized.
The strong vote in the House could put momentum behind efforts to include changes to the program in the omnibus spending package – a must-pass bill that lawmakers are trying to finalize before government funding expires on Friday.
But there are key differences between the House bill and a measure from Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), which has not yet been scheduled for a vote.
The House-passed measure received the backing of the U.S. Travel Association, despite initial concerns that Congress would go too far in tightening the waiver program’s security requirements following the Paris terror attacks.
The visa waiver program was launched in the 1980s as a way of boosting business travel and tourism to the United States and hundreds of millions of people have taken advantage of the initiative.
Democrats and Republicans have sparred over stepped-up security proposals made in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. terror attacks.
Most Democrats have decried Republican attempts to suspend the admission of Syrian and Iraqi refugees until background check procedures improve, while most Republicans have dismissed Democrat-led attempts to prevent known or suspected terrorists from obtaining a firearm or explosive device.
House Democrats staged a protest Tuesday over a recent rejection of their measure to ban those on the no-fly list from buying guns, forcing a series of floor votes to call attention to the issue and delaying the vote on the waiver program.
But Democratic leaders urged their members to back the bill, calling the reforms “responsible” and “sensible.”
While an earlier vote to suspend Syrian and Iraqi refugee admissions “showed the country and this body at its worst,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, “Today’s bill makes sensible improvements to the security of the visa waiver program.”
The House and Senate bills would require countries participating in the waiver program to issue passports with embedded chips containing biometric data, report information about stolen passports to Interpol and share information about known or suspected terrorists with the United States.
The House measure also seeks to prevent Syrian and Iraqi nationals, as well as any passport holder of a waiver country who has traveled to Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan since March 1, 2011 – the start of the Syrian civil war – from taking advantage of the program. These individuals would instead be required to submit to the traditional visa approval process, which requires an in-person interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate.
The Senate bill would prevent individuals who traveled to Iraq or Syria from using the program for five years. Both bills give the Department of Homeland Security secretary the authority to take countries out of the waiver system.
The biggest reason for imposing such restrictions, lawmakers argue, is that 30 of the 38 countries in the program are in Europe, meaning most could likely come to the United States without a visa. Lawmakers are worried about those 5,000 to 30,000 potentially radicalized individuals who have visited Syria or Iraq and hold European passports.
“That’s what this bill is designed to stop,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said in a statement. “We need to strengthen the security of the Visa Waiver Program to keep terrorists from reaching our shores.”
Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) pointed out that the bill also includes an emphasis on deception detection technologies enabling officials to determine when a person is potentially being disingenuous in filling out an online application.
“The human interview isn’t a failsafe either,” McSally noted, adding that administration officials had told her they can sometimes get more information from the forms visitors have to fill out then from in-person interviews.
But not all lawmakers agree the proposed reforms would solve concerns with the waiver program.
“This bill will do some good, but it’s mostly evadable,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.).
Sherman argued that since most Islamic State fighters slip into Syria from Turkey, they would not have stamps on their passports and could easily lie about where they had been.
The Homeland Security Department recently beefed up its online visa waiver application and the White House announced further efforts to strengthen the program.
The House proposal is a version of a Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) bill that was updated after review by a task force of Republican committee chairmen, who have been working on a roster of proposals to respond to the Paris terror attacks by stepping up security measures at home and abroad.
Clarification: This story has been updated to say that the House visa waiver proposal is an updated version of a bill from Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.).