GOP leaders seek pause, changes in Syrian refugee program

Republican congressional leaders are moving to apply greater scrutiny to Syrian refugees – and a certification that they’re safe – before allowing any to enter the United States.

Republicans in both chambers called for a temporary halt in Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, citing the deadly Paris terrorist attacks. They began crafting legislation to implement the policy and planned to vote on one proposal Thursday in the House. Another option: attaching new proposals to a bill needed to keep the government running after Dec. 11.

If no spending bill is approved by that date, parts of the government could shut down. While that’s highly unlikely, the prospect at least created a deadline for acting on the refugee issue.

Many Republicans embraced calls by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to temporarily suspend the refugee program. At the same time, some GOP members on and off Capitol Hill demanded a permanent end to the Syrian refugee program.

“Our nation has always been welcoming,” Ryan said after a closed-door meeting with House Republicans.

“This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry,” he said. “So we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of the refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population.”

The House is likely to vote Thursday on a bill proposed by Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., that would require the FBI director, director of National Intelligence and the attorney general to certify that every refugee admitted to the U.S. isn’t a security threat and mandates that the FBI director affirm that background checks were conducted on all admitted refugees by agreed-upon standards.

“What I heard today reinforces every preconceived notion that I had going into it that the vetting process we have is not complete and bringing these 10,000 in now does pose a grave risk that terrorists could exploit it,” Hudson said as he left a closed-door briefing for House members Tuesday evenng by FBI Director James Comey and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Hudson said,

Hudson and House Republican leaders some work to do to woo Democratic support for the bill. Only one Democrat has signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill as of Tuesday night.

“When I’m back home in North Carolina, it’s not just Republicans who tell me they’re worried about a lot of people coming here that aren’t vetted,” Hudson said. “It’s Republicans and Democrats who are worried about this.”

“We’ve been coming up with short-term and long-term solutions. It’s not something we can solve overnight,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Some congressional Democrats also could support a pause in the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

“We’re waiting for the briefing tomorrow, a pause may be necessary. We’re going to look at it,” said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Senate Democrat.

Ryan’s office seized upon Schumer’s remarks, calling them an example of bipartisan concern about the refugee program.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., however, was more unequivocal, saying, “We must and do subject any prospective refugee to the most rigorous scrutiny and screening.”

The Obama administration defended its screening process of refugees. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, described the process as “robust.”

“Certainly, there are some challenges to that process because of the situation in Syria,” Lynch told the committee. “But I would note, however, that we do have the benefit of having that significant and robust screening process in place, a process that Europe has not been able to set up, which renders them more vulnerable.”

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., disagreed. “It is without a doubt in the best interest of the American people and the national security to immediately halt any plans to allow Syrian refugees to resettle in the United States,” he said.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said lawmakers should attach language cutting off funding for the handling of refugees to the budget bill that must be passed in December to keep the government open.

“There is clear case where Congress should cut off the funding and say – absolutely no – we’re not going to allow the president to spend taxpayer money bringing in people who may well be terrorists,” Gingrich said on “Mornings on the Mall” on Washington’s WMAL radio.

He said the American people would blame Obama, not the Republicans, if he refused to go along, and part of the government shut down as a result.

There are a few lawmakers who agree with Gingrich. Still, the call to link refugee funding to the government spending bill is currently a murmur rather than a shout on Capitol Hill.

“You know, there’s certainly a possibility it could become part of the (government funding) legislation,” McConnell told reporters.

Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., said, “I’m willing to look at anything, but I do want to see what the task force comes up with.”

However, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said no one is talking about a government shutdown “except for you guys in the media.”

“We’re for refugees. That’s a component of American history,” he said. “But we want to make sure that the people that are coming here are not going to do us harm.” 

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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