By Megan Cassella and Patricia Zengerle
The US House of Representatives, defying a veto threat by President Barack Obama, overwhelmingly passed Republican-backed legislation on Thursday to suspend Obama’s program to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year and then intensify the process of screening them.
The measure, quickly drafted this week following the Islamic State attacks in Paris on Friday that killed 129 people, was approved on a vote of 289 to 137, with 47 of Obama’s 188 fellow Democrats breaking with the White House to support it.
The vote came despite a last-ditch appeal for Democratic votes from Jeh Johnson, Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security, and Denis McDonough, his chief of staff.
It followed a testy exchange between lawmakers and State Department official Anne Richard. Republicans responded with incredulity to her assertion at a House hearing that there is only a ‘very, very small’ threat of any of the Syrian refugees being a ‘terrorist.’
Some Republicans have asserted that some refugees could be militants bent on attacking the United States, noting reports that at least one Paris attacker may have slipped into Europe among migrants registered in Greece.
The bill, which would create the strictest US screening ever of refugees from a war-torn nation, passed with the two-thirds majority that the House would need to override a presidential veto. It now goes to the Senate, also controlled by Republicans.
If it passes in the Senate, each chamber would have to muster a two-thirds majority to override a veto.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid told reporters there was ‘no way’ the House bill would pass the 100-seat Senate, where it would need 60 votes to even be sent to Obama.
While many Americans see the United States historically as welcoming to immigrants, accepting refugees from Syria has raised concerns the newcomers may pose a national security threat in a country where about 3,000 people were killed by al Qaeda militants in the September 11, 2001, attacks.
The White House had said Obama would veto the House bill because it would introduce “unnecessary and impractical requirements” that would hamper efforts to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people without providing meaningful additional security for Americans.
Under the proposal no refugees from Syria or Iraq could enter the United States until several top-level US security officials verified they did not pose a threat.
Michael McCaul, Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the bill would create “the most robust national security screening process in American history for any refugee population.”
Democratic Representative Steny Hoyer dismissed it as ‘a message bill’ to let lawmakers go home “and say how tough they are.”
The Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan noted the bill would pause the program the White House announced in September to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. He said it was important to act quickly “when our national security is at stake.”
In an example of the party’s tough talk on Syrian refugees, Ben Carson, a leading 2016 Republican presidential candidate, on Thursday likened Syrian refugees to “a rabid dog running around your neighborhood,” and said admitting them would put Americans at risk.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
Some Democrats touted a different approach, promising legislation in the Senate to tighten a visa waiver program that intelligence experts say can be exploited by Islamic State militants or others planning U.S. attacks.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican Senator Jeff Flake said that proposal would be introduced after next week’s Thanksgiving holiday recess
During her congressional testimony, Richard, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said the odds of a refugee becoming a terrorist are ‘very, very small.’
“Syrians are less of a threat, actually, because they’ve fled their country. They’ve voted with their feet,” she said.
“Let me stop you there real quick,” Republican Representative Lamar Smith of Texas said.
“Terrorist organizations have already said they’re going to use the refugee program to try to infiltrate the United States and you say you’re less worried about Syrian refugees than other refugees?” Smith asked.
“Don’t you think Syrian refugees might someday become terrorists?” he asked.
Honduras said on Wednesday it had detained five Syrians seeking to reach the United States for traveling on doctored Greek passports, but authorities in the Central American country said the men did not belong to “any terrorist cell” and four were college students.
The US Department of Homeland Security said members of two Syrian families – two men, two women and four children – turned themselves in to US authorities in Laredo, Texas, on the Mexican border. There was no evidence the Syrians had any connection to terrorism, US officials said.