By Seung Min Kim
January 20, 2016
Senate Democrats decisively blocked a proposal to implement stricter screening requirements for refugees from Iraq and Syria, after a partisan dispute over amendments — as usual — killed any prospects of advancing the measure.
Earlier, Democrats indicated that they would seek votes on several hot-button measures in connection with the refugee screening bill, including GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s controversial proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. But the two sides couldn't agree on how to proceed, and Democrats filibustered the measure on a 55-43 vote Wednesday afternoon.
The Democrats' demand "doesn't sound very sincere," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said before the vote, arguing that Democrats wanted to bring “the presidential campaign to the Senate floor."
Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had laid out the strategy in a floor speech, saying Democrats will help Republicans secure the 60 votes needed to advance the bill to make screening standards stricter for refugees from Iraq and Syria — but only if they get four amendment votes, including on Trump’s Muslim ban.
“Republican leaders, including the speaker and the Republican leader, have pledged loyalty to Donald Trump and his disgraceful policies,” Reid said. “As the front-runner of the Republican nomination, Donald Trump and his proposals are leading the public debate in our country. Republicans who support these illogical plans should be prepared for the next logical step: voting on his vision of America.”
Democrats wanted votes on measures to boost funding for local anti-terror efforts, barring people on the no-fly list from purchasing weapons, and a broader proposal laying out the Democrats’ strategy to defeat the Islamic State. In return, Republicans had sought several votes of their own, including political and substantive measures.
That was in line with what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell foreshadowed at last week's Republican retreat in Baltimore, when he said the GOP could very well counter the Democrats’ political amendments with their own proposals.
“It's worth noting that what's good for the goose is good for the gander,” McConnell said last week. “And so, you could expect amendments that they might not like related to the Sanders or Clinton campaign. As a general rule, what I've tried to ask the Senate to do is let the presidential candidates run their race and let's try to do the people's business.”
Senate Democrats largely oppose the underlying refugee measure, since they argue that it would effectively halt the nation’s refugee resettlement program altogether since the security requirements are so strict. Democrats have also pressed the point that refugees already go through the toughest screening requirements to enter the United States. Some Republican senators, including Jeff Flake of Arizona, have also expressed concerns about the bill.
But the legislation, proposed in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, got broad bipartisan support when it passed in the House, with 47 House Democrats helping to propel the bill into an essentially veto-proof majority. To this date, no identified attackers in Paris assaults were refugees from Iraq or Syria, although in a separate case, two Iraqi refugees were arrested on terrorism-related charges in California and Texas earlier this month.
Some immigration advocates had privately fumed at the Senate Democrats’ amendment strategy, arguing that it muddles the party’s broader stance on immigrants and refugees — particularly in the contrast with Republicans.
The legislation is so high-profile that Senate Republicans running for president, including Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, are taking time off the campaign trail to cast their votes. Near the end of his comments Wednesday, Reid couldn’t resist taking a dig at those two senators.
“I know it’s a big day in the Senate because on my news briefing on the way to work here this morning, I heard the big day is going to be … the junior senator from Florida is going to be here to vote and the junior senator from Texas,” Reid said. “They’re going to actually be in the Senate to vote. It’s a big day here.”
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