WASHINGTON (AP) – Determined to respond quickly to the Paris attacks, House Republicans outlined legislation Wednesday aimed at increasing screenings for Syrian and Iraqi refugees before they enter the United States, including a new requirement for FBI background checks.
They described the legislation, set for a vote Thursday, as an attempt to find a middle ground. The bill steers clear of demands from some Republicans, including presidential candidates, for religious screenings or a complete end to the U.S. refugee program.
“This is common sense. And it’s our obligation,” Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said on the House floor. “If the intelligence and law-enforcement community cannot certify that a person presents no threat, then they should not be allowed in.”
Yet despite GOP hopes that Democrats would support the bill in large numbers, Democratic leaders turned against it Wednesday, complaining of changes to the legislation they said would have the practical effect of keeping refugees out of the U.S. entirely.
“The House Republican legislation would immediately shut down all refugee resettlement from Syria and Iraq – possibly for many years – and severely handicap future refugee resettlement around the world,” Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Zoe Lofgren of California and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said in a joint statement. “Some in Congress intend to use this tragedy to shut down the U.S. refugee program, turning our backs on victims.”
Only around 2,200 Syrian refugees have been allowed into this country in the last four years and they already go through lengthy screenings that can take as much as three years, including biometric screening, fingerprinting and additional classified controls. The new bill would add a requirement for the heads of the FBI and the Homeland Security Department, along with the Director of National Intelligence, to certify that each refugee being admitted would not pose a security threat.
The current refugee program, along with President Barack Obama’s plan to add 10,000 more Syrian refugees this year, would likely come to a stop while the new protocol is established. The FBI also would be tasked with coming up with a way to conduct a “thorough background investigation” of refugees fleeing chaos and horror. Although Syrians tend to be heavily documented, Democrats questioned how that could be accomplished.
President Barack Obama, traveling overseas, did not immediately weigh in on the legislation but seemed certain to oppose it. Commenting late Tuesday on the congressional debate in general, he ridiculed Congress for failing to come up with legislation authorizing the use of military force in Syria that he has been seeking for months.
“And now, suddenly, they’re able to rush in, in a day or two, to solve the threat of widows and orphans and others who are fleeing a war-torn land, and that’s their most constructive contribution to the effort against (the Islamic State)?” Obama said in the Philippines. “That doesn’t sound right to me. And I suspect it won’t sound right to the American people.”
The conservative group Heritage Action for America also announced its opposition to the bill, saying it gives too much authority to appointees of Obama. Nonetheless many of the House conservatives who’ve caused problems for leadership on legislation of all kinds said they would support it.
Even if it does pass in Thursday’s vote the bill would have no immediate effect. Senate action is not likely until after Congress takes a week-long break for Thanksgiving, if then. And Obama could end up vetoing the bill even if it does make it to his desk.
Several conservatives said the real action could come on a pending must-pass year spending bill that has to clear by Dec. 11 in order to keep the government running. Some want to use that bill to cut off funding for the refugee program – foreshadowing another potential government shutdown fight.