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House Dems to mull alternative bill on Syrian refugees

Billy House
Bloomberg News

House Democrats may offer an alternative to a Republican bill that seeks to tighten screening of refugees from Iraq and Syria seeking to enter the U.S., a Democratic leadership aide said Wednesday.

The aide said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and other members of the party leadership oppose the measure filed by Republicans late Tuesday, saying it would immediately shut down resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq and severely handicap future resettlement. The House plans to vote Thursday on that bill, H.R. 4038.

House Speaker Paul Ryan urged lawmakers during a floor speech Wednesday to back the measure.

“People understand the plight of those fleeing the Middle East. But they also want basic assurances for the safety of this country,” said Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican. “If the intelligence and law enforcement community cannot certify a person presents no threat, then they should not be allowed in.”

The Republicans’ bill would block Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the country unless four top U.S. law-enforcement and national security officials affirm to Congress that they are not a security threat. The FBI director also would have to certify that background checks were completed for all refugees.

The Democratic aide said the Republican measure, filed by Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas, was different from a proposal offered earlier by Republican Representative Richard Hudson of North Carolina.

Pelosi and other House Democrats are weighing introducing an alternative bill after a proposal made to House Republican leaders was rejected, the aide said. Details of the potential Democratic version were not yet available.

McCaul said he was disappointed that Democrats may vote against the Republican bill.

“We certainly reached out to them,” he told reporters. “They’re saying the status quo is just fine.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California told reporters Tuesday the Republican measure “is just a start” for legislative action on terrorism and refugees.

President Barack Obama said the increasingly rancorous U.S. debate on Syrian refugees feeds Islamic State propaganda that the U.S. and its European allies are at war with the Muslim world. For the second time this week, Obama lashed out at lawmakers and U.S. governors, most of them Republicans, who are pushing to block the administration from allowing 10,000 Syrian refugees to resettle in the country.

“I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate,’’ Obama said at a news conference Wednesday in the Philippines. He used an acronym for the extremist group blamed for the terrorist attack in Paris last Friday and the downing of a Russian jetliner last month.

One of the Islamic State extremists who staged the Paris attacks, killing at least 129 people, may have entered Europe posing as a Syrian refugee.

The administration is working to assure lawmakers and the public that it can keep terrorists from mixing with incoming Syrian refugees. While most of the opposition has come from Republicans, the White House plan was dealt a blow Tuesday when New York’s Charles Schumer, a top Senate Democrat, voiced reservations about the resettlement program.

Schumer, poised to take over as Senate Democratic leader in 2017, said Tuesday “a pause may be necessary” on the entry of Syrians fleeing civil war. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, both Republicans, earlier called on the administration to put those plans on hold.

Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said Wednesday that the Obama administration hasn’t adequately explained to the public its process for vetting Syrian refugees before they are admitted to the U.S.

“I think they have a great process,” Kaine said after a closed meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “They have not done a good job in explaining what the process is.” As a result, people “are going to say stupid stuff and I think many governors have.”

Another Foreign Relations Committee member, Jeff Flake of Arizona, said he had a better sense of the administration’s vetting process following the committee meeting. “It’s pretty thorough and not as bad as has been described,” he said.

Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, said at a House committee hearing that fighting terrorism and welcoming refugees to the U.S. are not "mutually exclusive."

“Slamming the door in the face of victims of terrorism would be a betrayal of our values,” Engel said.

Republican Representative Peter King of New York said some high-ranking officials have said the vetting process isn’t sufficient. “No wants to shut the door on anyone,” he said. “Having said that, I think there are real issues here.”

Matthew Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told members of the House Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security committees that Syrian refugees pose far less of a risk than the estimated 4,000 Europeans who have gone to Syria to fight and whose passports allow them visa- free entry into the U.S.

“The real risk is the foreign-fighter population,” Olsen told a House hearing Wednesday. “That is where intelligence resources, law enforcement resources have to be placed.”

Obama has said he wants the U.S. to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The U.S. is already selective, usually considering for resettlement only refugees deemed “vulnerable,” such as widows, unaccompanied children or political enemies of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Candidates are interviewed in person at refugee camps bordering Syria and the vetting requires nearly two years on average and only around 2 percent are single males of combat age, officials said.

McCaul declined to say whether the tighter scrutiny of refugees from Syria would or could in any way could be considered a religious litmus test against Muslims.

“We’re just just trying to keep terrorist out of our country,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”