From Lisa Mascaro, LA Times
Speaker Paul Ryan is moving toward a House vote Thursday on legislation to “pause” the resettlement of Syrian refugees to the U.S., as the White House struggles to save the program from mounting political opposition in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.
Administration officials launched a massive outreach to Capitol Hill and held a conference call with governors Tuesday, trying to prevent a suspension of the decades-old program over concerns it might allow terrorist sympathizers to slip into the United States.
“We cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion,” Ryan said Tuesday after meeting with House Republicans. “This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.”
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“We think the prudent and responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program, in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population,” Ryan said.
The new speaker faces pressure from Republicans in Congress — and on the presidential campaign trail — to stop the program that expects to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who also wants “a pause or a moratorium,” said he and Ryan were working together on the issue.
Ryan assembled a task force over the weekend to draft a legislative package. Similar proposals are gaining in the Senate, where some Democrats have aligned with Republicans against the refugee program.
The House GOP’s package was still being formed, but it would cover refugees from both Syria and Iraq, and allow entry only if the FBI director and other officials certified the refugee was not a security threat and had passed a background investigation, according to an aide to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Senior administration officials, alarmed by the sudden political backlash to the decades-old refugee program, fanned out to Capitol Hill this week to try to ease mounting concerns.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and FBI Director James Comey were briefing lawmakers late Tuesday evening, with another session scheduled Wednesday.
The resettlement program, first launched in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, has placed 3 million refugees of various nationalities in the U.S. over the years, and has long enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress, officials said.
This year, the State Department intends to increase the number of Syrian refugees from 1,680 to at least 10,000. Refugees are screened overseas and their applications are vetted in the U.S. by Homeland Security, FBI and other officials. Average processing time for all refugees to the U.S. is 18-24 months.
“We are talking about a program that is in the best American tradition and reflects our values,” said a senior administration official, granted anonymity to discuss the program on a conference call with reporters.
“The thing I fear most about this current discussion… is we will lose bipartisan support,” the official said.
The drumbeat against the Syrian refugee program has intensified in recent days as almost half the nation’s governors have said they would prevent resettlement in their states.
Most of the Republican presidential candidates have called for the program to be suspended, though Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas wants to make exceptions for Christians.
Breaking from the pack, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush shifted his approach Tuesday and said the U.S. should not do away with its “noble tradition” of helping refugees.
“I don’t think we should eliminate our support for refugees,” Bush said in an interviewwith Bloomberg Politics. “It’s been a noble tradition in our country for many years.”