- President Barack Obama and House Democrats said they would oppose a GOP-drafted bill to suspend the program allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the U.S. until key national security agencies certify they don't pose a security risk
- The deadline to reach a spending deal is December 11, and the refugee issue could make it more difficult to reach an accord
Washington (CNN)The "je suis Paris" mood didn't last long in Washington.
House Speaker Paul Ryan called for a bipartisan response to the ISIS terrorist attacks in France, but President Barack Obama and House Democrats said they would oppose a GOP-drafted bill to suspend the program allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the U.S. until key national security agencies certify they don't pose a security risk.
The White House on Wednesday afternoon said Obama would veto the bill, saying the certification requirement is "untenable and would provide no meaningful additional security for the American people, instead serving only to create significant delays and obstacles in the fulfillment of a vital program that satisfies both humanitarian and national security objectives."
The battle over what to do about the program, and whether it should continue receiving federal money, could trigger what Ryan was hoping to avoid -- another government shutdown.
Ryan made a rare floor speech on Wednesday arguing that the legislation the House would take up on Thursday was a reasonable response to concerns about new attacks. He distanced himself from some Republican presidential candidates who have urged that the U.S. refuse asylum for Muslim refugees.
"We will not have a religious test, only a security test," Ryan said.
Ryan tweeted Thursday morning that the bill would be on Obama's desk shortly.
"The refugee crisis is a consequence of failed policy. We're sending @POTUS a bill that requires a plan to deal w/ threats in that region," Ryan tweeted.
The House Republican proposal would halt the program permitting refugees fleeing war in Iraq and Syria to enter the United States until the Secretary of Homeland Security signs off that those applying to come in do not have ties to terrorism. The proposal also requires that the FBI certify that those applying to enter the U.S. have had background checks, and that federal agencies regularly report to Congress about those who were vetted.
Obama's vocal criticism of Republicans pushing for restrictions in the refugee program seemed to deepen the divide on Capitol Hill, and even take some Democrats aback.
While traveling through Turkey and the Philippines, the President called some GOP suggestions about the program "offensive" and ripped those warning that allowing those refugees fleeing the war posed a threat.
"Apparently, they are scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America," Obama said, responding to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who said he would refuse entry of a 5-year-old Syrian orphan into the United States. "At first, they were too scared of the press being too tough on them in the debates. Now they are scared of 3-year-old orphans. That doesn't seem so tough to me."
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, said the President's partisan rhetoric "went over the line."
"I haven't called for a halt or a moratorium. So I'm sympathetic to the administration's position here," Flake said. "But instead of blaming people or assuming people are bigots, come out and explain what the vetting process is and I think people will feel more comfortable."
House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul of Texas pointed out it was concerns raised by officials from the FBI and Homeland Security that prompted the legislation he drafted with Rep. Richard Hudson, R-North Carolina.
"It's not me making this up," McCaul said.
In its veto threat, the White House added, "No refugee is approved for travel to the United States under the current system until the full array of required security vetting measures have been completed. Thus, the substantive result sought through this draft legislation is already embedded into the program."
Senate waits until after Thanksgiving
Senate Republican leaders do not expect to vote on the issue before the Thanksgiving recess. Top national security officials from the Obama administration held a classified briefing for senators on Wednesday evening, and several senators from both parties told reporters they were extremely concerned about visa waiver programs that would allow citizens of dozens of countries to fly to United States without a visa.
"I think what is emerging as a centrality of thought is that the visa waiver program is potentially the place where there is greater gaps, possibly, than the refugee program itself," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who said citizens in those countries who go to Syria to fight for ISIS could then make their way to the U.S.
"The problem is," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, "Let's say France has had 2,000 people leave to go and fight. They are a visa waiver country so people come back to France and then they come into the United States."
Feinstein said she would introduce a bill Thursday with Flake and other senators, that would prevent people who have been in the Syria or Iraq in the last five years from using the visa waiver program.
Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson told reporters his department had already made some changes to the visa waiver program earlier this year and called the it an important program for "lawful trade and travel" and said there are 38 countries who are "best friends" who use the program for tourism.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, emerging in the afternoon from a separate administration-led classified briefing on the vetting program, defended it as "very solid" but criticized the administration because "they haven't done a good job of telling the governors and telling the mayors, telling the American public what the vetting process is."
Flake agreed, saying the briefing actually changed his mind about the vetting program.
"It is pretty thorough and more robust than has been described. But I still have some questions," he said. "I think the administration needs to do a much better job explaining what that is and not just assume they're right on this."
Corker said the briefing helped him better understand "the veracity of the program." But he was also critical of Obama's comments, which he said were echoed by one administration briefer in the classified session.
"To browbeat somebody for just having a question or speak down to someone because they have a concern. To say that they're irrational or they don't understand who we are as a nation, or something like that. Yeah, it doesn't help. It hurts," Corker said. "What would help, and I think this was a universal message in the meeting we just had -- on both sides of the aisle, I might add -- is that someone needs to explain clearly to the American people the processes we go through before we admit refugees."
Democrats cry foul
Ahead of a Thursday House vote on the GOP proposal, top House Democrats agreed the program could be strengthened but warned that the bill went too far.
"As we see it, this would virtually kill the opportunity for Syrian or Iraqi people seeking asylum to come to the United States," Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security panel told reporters on Wednesday.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi met with Ryan on Wednesday and pushed for Democrats to be able to offer an alternative bill, but her request was denied, according to a senior House Democratic leadership aide.
Republicans seized on a poll released by Bloomberg on Wednesday that shows 53% of Americans want to stop the program that would allow 10,000 Syrians to resettle in the United States.
Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia admitted that the vote could be politically tough vote for Democrats, but he blasted Republicans, especially those running for president, for playing politics with the issue.
"You've got people deliberately exploiting a tragedy and playing to people's fears and insecurities and I just think that's beneath us," Connolly said.
The fight is already threatening to set up another government shutdown showdown as Congress must pass a crucial spending bill by December 11.
Without a significant bipartisan vote and stepped up criticism from the White House about GOP legislation to rework the vetting system, the fight over the issue is already threatening to set up another shutdown showdown in December over the government funding bill.
Texas Republican Rep. Brian Babin drafted a letter signed by 56 other House GOP members urging Ryan to include language in that bill to block all taxpayer money for the program that would allow any refugees from Syria, the Middle East and North Africa until a series of conditions are met, including sign off from national security agencies.
Michael Needham, the head of Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group, backed the effort to defund the program and came out against the House GOP bill. White it improves the vetting process, he said, "it provides no leverage for Congress to weigh in and relies solely on President Obama's appointees to carry out the new vetting process."
Ryan's office did not respond to the letter from Babin, but noted it is focused on moving a bill they believe is reasonable and strikes an important balance to pause the program, but not cancel it outright.
Further complicating things for Ryan, four House Republicans called on Tuesday for suspending all refugee resettlement programs, not just those covering people applying to leave Iraq and Syria. Reps. Babin, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma and Lamar Smith of Texas released a joint statement saying they are drafting language they want added to the spending bill, arguing some refugees crossing the U.S. southern border may pose a national security threat.
Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Arizona, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, was lukewarm on the House Republican bill addressing refugees, saying he'd vote for it, but said it wasn't enough to address his concerns about the program. "It's pretty clear to me that the intelligence to vet just isn't there."
Salmon said "the public is on our side on this one" and believes the must-pass spending bill should further address the issue. In a sign of just how much the issue is resonating, Salmon, who frequently votes against spending bills said he was open to voting for the funding bill even if it included money for Planned Parenthood and Obamacare if it did include provisions directed at the refugee program.