By Seung Min Kim, Burgess Everett and Jake Sherman
November 16, 2015
A cascade of Republicans on Monday implored the Obama administration to scrap plans to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States next year, saying they pose an unacceptable security risk in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris.
And, in a dramatic twist, the sudden standoff is raising the possibility of a government shutdown next month.
Throughout the day a host of Republican governors around the country, wary that refugees could end up in their home states, blasted President Barack Obama’s plans. But those governors lack real sway over the process, and some are asking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to insert a provision in the Dec. 11 spending bill that would bar more Syrian settlers.
The politics are moving fast: The Democratic governor of New Hampshire, a Senate candidate, is siding with conservatives, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is reversing his support for a $1 billion spending bill intended to allow in more Syrian refugees after touting the measure just weeks ago. GOP leaders are keeping their options open as they mull whether to try to block new Syrian refugees by adding language to the must-pass spending bill.
In an interview, John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said “it’s a good time to hit the pause button [on the Syrian resettlement program] and to reevaluate where we are and what the risks are.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), one of the leading immigration hard-liners in the Capitol, sent a letter to colleagues calling for provisions in the omnibus spending bill that would give Congress more oversight over Syrian refugees.
And House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul of Texas wrote a letter to Obama asking him to “temporarily suspend the admission of all additional Syrian refugees into the United States pending a full review of the Syrian refugee resettlement program.” In an appearance on CNN, McCaul said Congress should declare war on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS.
But some Democratic lawmakers stood by their calls to dramatically increase the number of refugees.
“I want to check on the vetting process, but I don’t believe we should categorically be refusing refugees,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said in an interview. “I do believe that we have a humanitarian responsibility and we have to do it with our eyes wide open.”
Ryan and McConnell will have to decide quickly on a course of action as they confront the first potential legislative crisis since Ryan became speaker. The government funding process offers powerful leverage over the Obama administration but would threaten a shutdown if Democrats balk at their demands.
Time is short. Just 25 days remain until government spending authority runs out, and Congress will recess next week for Thanksgiving.
This episode is a major test for Ryan and McConnell, who have vastly different leadership styles. Ryan has said he will be a bottom-up leader, allowing the rank and file to drive decisions. McConnell is more willing to press his own views.
Republicans’ chief concerns stem from reports that at least one of the suspects in Friday’s attacks may have crossed through Greece along with refugees. A Syrian passport discovered near the body of one of the attackers in Paris showed that the holder of the passport passed through Leros, Greece, in early October, according to Reuters.
The Obama administration announced in September that it planned to take in about 10,000 additional Syrian refugees as the crisis in the Middle Eastern nation worsened, and European nations also proposed plans to resettle refugees. Congressional Democrats have proposed letting in as many as 100,000 refugees over time.
Top Republicans are already discussing strategy. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) held conference calls with "several committee chairmen" over the weekend to discuss "providing support to our French and regional allies, as well as identifying steps the Congress can take to keep Americans safe from the threat posed by ISIS," according to an aide. Senate GOP leaders will discuss the matter on Monday night.
Sessions, meanwhile, wants language attached to the omnibus spending bill that would allow Congress to hold a separate vote on funding for Obama’s refugee resettlement program and for the administration to fully offset those costs. The Republican senator also would require administration officials to identify foreigners admitted into the United States as refugees who have since been involved in crime or terrorism.
In his letter to Obama, McCaul said previous testimony to his committee from top officials at the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security show that the United States does not have the "on-the-ground intelligence" that's needed to thoroughly vet Syrian refugees.
“These statements call into serious question the integrity of our vetting procedures for Syrian refugees,” McCaul wrote to Obama.
Refugees go through an elaborate screening process that the State Department estimates currently takes about 18 to 24 months.
Other top Republicans are also beginning to sound concerns on resettling Syrian refugees inside the United States. Texas Rep. Kay Granger, who leads the House panel overseeing funding for the State Department, also announced her opposition to admitting more Syrian refugees, and a host of Republican governors are threatening to block refugees from their states.
“We cannot allow Syrian refugees in the United States in the current dangerous environment,” Granger said. “We have provided significant assistance to the refugees and nations in the region to address the crisis, and that should continue to be our response.”
Ryan, who asked the Obama administration to brief all members of Congress, hasn’t yet made his strategy clear. But during an interview with radio host Bill Bennett on Monday, he said that the House is “looking at all of these options” when it comes to the issue of Syrian refugees.
Ryan and his leadership team are, indeed, actively exploring ways to deal with the refugee issue, and they have not ruled out using the government funding process. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) will host closed sessions this week for lawmakers to ask questions about the policies included in spending bills, a setting in which the refugee issue is sure to come up.
A number of Republican governors, as well as Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, have called on the federal government to stop resettlement of Syrian refugees. But Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, conceded in a letter to McConnell and Ryan that his state can't stop the federal government from paying to relocate refugees in Florida.
Asked whether states have the legal ability to limit such refugees, State Department spokesman Mark Toner replied: “Our lawyers are looking at that.”
"Several states have expressed their concerns about accepting some of these refugees. We take their concerns seriously," Toner said.
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