Days after the massacre in Paris, the Republican-controlled Congress is uniting around a strategy to freeze the resettlement program for Syrian refugees inside the United States.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) told rank-and-file members the chamber could vote on a stand-alone bill sometime this week that would “pause” the administration’s efforts to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees throughout the country by the end of 2016.
“Our nation has always been welcoming, but we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion,” Ryan told reporters after a morning meeting with the House GOP conference. “This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.”
But he also didn’t rule out attaching a measure pausing the resettlement program to the omnibus spending bill that Congress must pass by December 11 -- a move that could spark another funding showdown with the White House and threaten a government shutdown just in time for the holiday recess.
“What happened in Paris is pure evil,” Ryan said. “It's clear that this was an act of war and that the world needs American leadership.”
Concern that terrorist groups might exploit the migrant crisis has roiled the country and upended the 2016 presidential race after a series of violent attacks in Paris by ISIS left around 130 people dead. Law enforcement officials say a fake passport used by one of the suicide bombers may mean he posed a Syrian refugee and entered France via Greece.
Republicans now want a moratorium on the Syrian asylum effort until they feel confident the administration has the right vetting and security procedures in place.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) echoed Ryan’s complaints and cited a 2011 case in which an Iraqi refugee who settled in his home state was arrested for plotting a terror attack and then had his fingerprints traced back to an improvised explosive device in Iraq.
“The ability to vet people coming from that part of the world is really quite limited, and so that’s why I, for one, don’t feel particularly comforted by the assertion that our government can vet these refugees, which leads to what you’re hearing from all the governors around the country,” McConnell said during a Capitol Hill press conference.
Since Monday almost 30 states, nearly all with Republican governors, have announced they won’t accept Syrian refugees.
McConnell said “there’s certainly a possibility” of adding a measure on refugees to the spending package. “The speaker and I were talking about this yesterday. We’re talking to the White House. We’ll see what they’re open to,” he said.
McConnell also used the simmering crisis to rake Obama over the coals for not doing enough to eliminate ISIS.
“We’re going to continue to have refugees as long as Syria looks like it does,” he said. “What we need is a strategy obviously to give the refugees an opportunity to stay in their own country.”
Meanwhile, Democrats are staying mum until they receive a classified briefing Wednesday night about the Paris attacks.
“My personal feeling is I’m going to wait until tomorrow. I don’t think at this stage we should be pausing until we get the facts,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-NV) said during a press conference.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who is expected to replace Reid as leader in the next Congress, said “a pause may be necessary.”
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), who has called on the administration to accept more Syrian refugees, told reporters he’s “all for” making changes to how the U.S. country accepts migrants, so long as any fixes are applied to applicants from around the globe, including adjustments to the visa waiver program, which allows some Europeans to travel to the U.S. without a visa.
He said half of the Syrians who have sought asylum in the U.S. have been turned down and noted that the roughly 2,000 refugees already in the country are just a drop in the bucket. The U.S. takes in 70,000 refugees annually, primarily from Burma, Iraq and Somalia.
Durbin, a member of the powerful Senate appropriations committee, wouldn’t speculate on Democratic reaction if a provision halting the program was stuck into the year-end funding bill.
However, the second-ranking Senate Democrat did mock a plan by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a GOP presidential contender, to introduce legislation to prevent Syrian refugees from obtaining U.S. visas as “screwy.” He also called an proposal from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to favor Christian refugees over Muslims an “outrageous statement by a major American politician.”
The White House seems to be spoiling for a fight on the issue.
"Mindful of the particular conditions of the Syria crisis, Syrian refugees go through additional forms of security screening," Amy Pope, deputy homeland security adviser at the White House National Security Council, wrote in a blog post.
“We are going to do the right thing in the right way -- protecting the American people even as we provide refuge to some of the world’s most vulnerable people,” she added.