Congress returns to Washington this week facing a potential showdown over Syrian refugees resettling in the U.S., a battle that could lead to a partial shutdown of the government.
Lawmakers must approve a $1.1 trillion spending bill before Dec. 11. And some opponents of President Barack Obama’s effort to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in this country view the must-pass funding measure as the perfect vehicle to thwart the administration’s plan.
“I think it’s better than 50-50 that we’re going to get one,” Norman Ornstein, a centrist scholar on politics and Congress at the American Enterprise Institute, said of a shutdown.
The House of Representatives passed a bill before its Thanksgiving recess that essentially blocks the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the U.S. unless they pass heightened security background checks.
But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, has vowed to block the bill sponsored by Republican Reps. Richard Hudson of North Carolina and Michael McCaul of Texas in the upper chamber. And Obama threatens to veto it if the bill arrives at his desk, even though it passed the House on a veto-proof bipartisan 289-137 vote.
That leaves the spending bill, said Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina.
“That’s the logical next step, especially if the Senate doesn’t take up the issue,” said Mulvaney, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “The House will use the power of the purse. If the president wants to challenge us on that and shut the government down we can have that debate then.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, dismissed shutdown talk on a series of potentially contentious issues from refugee resettlement to federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
“I don’t see a shutdown happening,” McCarthy said Monday.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, speaking Monday in Paris, said the administration is trusting Republican leaders to keep their word. He noted that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has several times “assured the American public that there won’t be a shutdown this year.”
A recent NBC News/SurveyMonkey online poll found that 56 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s plan to accept more Syrian refugees while 41 percent approve of letting them resettle in the U.S.
“Obviously, the Senate majority leader will have a lot to say about the outcome, so his steadfast commitment to ensuring that doesn’t happen is certainly something that we take some solace in,” Earnest said.
Despite those assurances, some GOP lawmakers are agitating to use the spending bill as a vehicle to stem the refugee resettlement program.
Republican Rep. Brian Babin of Texas sent a letter with at least 73 Republican signatures calling on House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, to halt funding for refugee resettlement in the spending bill unless the White House establishes stricter vetting procedures for refugees.
Lawmakers who advocate linking the Syrian refugee issue to the omnibus spending bill feel that public opinion would be with them this time, despite polls showing the majority of Americans blamed Republicans for partial government shutdowns in 1996 and 2013.
But some political experts say Democrats and the White House also need to tread cautiously on the refugee issue or potentially pay a price if fear of terrorism remains a front-burner issue in 2016.
“I don’t think there’s any question where the public is on this,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Given that they (Democrats) are running upstream, they have to worry about how the public interprets it.”
Unfortunately, with the likelihood of future attacks somewhere in the world, I think this issue isn’t going away.
Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report
House Democrats appeared mindful of that.
Among the 47 Democrats who voted for the GOP-sponsored refugee bill were 13 members of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline program for vulnerable incumbents.
And the question of Syrian refugees already appears to be playing out on the congressional campaign trail.
Rep. Patrick Murphy, who is seeking the open Florida Senate seat created by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s decision not to seek re-election, was among the Democrats who voted for the bill.
New Hampshire Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who’s running against incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, was the first Democratic governor to support suspending the refugees program until there are assurances that those seeking to enter the United States are properly vetted.
Governors in at least 30 states – including Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas – also have voiced objections to refugee resettlement plan citing security concerns.
Those concerns were magnified by reports that one of the Paris terrorist suspects had a fake Syrian passport and entered Europe with a wave of refugees from that war-torn country.
The Obama administration, through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, warned states in a letter last week that “states may not categorically deny ORR-funded benefits and services to Syrian refugees.”
“Any state with such a policy would not be in compliance with the State Plan requirements, applicable statutes, and their own assurances, and could be subject to enforcement action,” the letter said.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration announced several measures Monday to strengthen the visa waiver program that it says will improve the ability to identify individuals who may have traveled to conflict zones, as well as enhance the ability to thwart terrorists’ attempts to travel on lost or stolen passports.
Earnest said refugees are the “most rigorously screened class of travelers” and added that the administration, in consultation with governors from both parties, agreed to provide more frequent updates on refugees who are resettled in their states, as well as increased information on security precautions.
And he called on Congress to act before it leaves for the holiday, saying “for too long, Capitol Hill has been a source of politically motivated posturing, but few if any tangible improvements to our national security.”