The Senate will vote Wednesday on a House-passed bill to stop Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the United States until the U.S. government can certify they don’t post a security risk.
The measure, which House Republicans presented as their opening response to the Paris terror attacks, passed that chamber in November on a veto-proof vote of 289 to 137, thanks to the help of 47 Democrats who joined Republicans.
But the backlash from pro-immigrant, refugee, and Muslim groups – as well as increasing anti-Muslim sentiment from Republican presidential candidates – drove many of those Democrats to ratchet back that support.
Democratic Senate leaders are promising to block the bill and it’s unlikely it will reach the 60-vote threshold needed to pierce a filibuster. If it somehow reached the president’s desk, President Obama has has already threatened to veto the bill anyway.
But in Congress and on the campaign trail, many Republicans are treating the House GOP proposal — backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and supported by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — as a reasonable middle ground between Barack Obama’s plans to expand Syrian refugee resettlement, and Donald Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban all Muslims from the U.S.
Trump sparked a firestorm following the ISIS-inspired attack in San Bernardino when he called for a “total” ban on Muslims entering the United States, at least for awhile. Other Republican leaders raced to disavow his comments and distance themselves from Trump on the issue. In her State of the Union rebuttal, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) even indirectly referred to Trump and such statements, warning Republicans away from the “siren call of the angriest voices” and reminding them that “no one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
But Trump has not backed down. During Thursday night’s Republican debate, he said some of his Muslim friends had actually thanked him for the ban proposal, reminding the rest of the candidates on the dais just how much his South Carolina poll numbers had spiked following the announcement of his plan.
Other Republicans on the stage denounced the temporary ban on Muslims coming to the U.S., but were quick to embrace barring the entrance of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
“We should take no Syrian refugees of any kind,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said.
“They’re recruiting people to enter this country as engineers, posing as doctors, posing as refugees. We know this for a fact,”Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) said, calling for the entire system of legal immigration to be examined.
That mindset is bolstered by reports that at least one of the Paris attackers appears to have used a fake Syrian passport to enter Europe with other refugees, and revelations that some of the attackers in the alleged New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Germany were perpetrated by North African and Arab immigrants. Those incidents have reinvigorated calls to restrict immigration until security checks can be stepped up, especially for refugees and immigrants with ties to countries where ISIS is active.
But some Democratic lawmakers are concerned that by making it more difficult for them to enter the U.S., those who suffer most are being punished most severely.
“Families in Syria and Iraq are desperately trying to escape ISIS’ gruesome campaign of torture, rape and violence and terror from the Assad regime,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a speech opposing the bill just prior to the House vote. “If we betray our values as a country and slam the door in the face of those innocent victims of terror, we do not strengthen our security. We weaken ourselves in the fight against ISIS’s savage ideology.”
There is new controversy around the widely-supported measure to improve the security of the visa waiver program by requiring anyone from a visa waiver country who has been to Syria, Iraq, Sudan or Iran since the start of the Syrian civil war submit to a regular screening process. Though it became law as part of the omnibus spending package last year, some lawmakers are concerned about the effects on dual citizens and may give the measure a second look this year.
In the meantime, however, McConnell plans to make good on his pledge to put the Syrian and Iraqi refugee legislation on the Senate floor early in 2016.
But even in the unlikely case it gains enough Democratic votes to surmount a filibuster, it is unlikely to secure a veto-proof majority.