Amid fears that the United States could become victim of a deadly Paris-style terrorist attack, the House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to impose heightened security measures on Iraqi and Syrian refugees seeking to resettle in this country.
Lawmakers voted 289-137 on a measure sponsored by Republican Reps. Richard Hudson of North Carolina and Michael McCaul of Texas that would prevent refugees from those battle-scarred nations from entering the U.S. unless the heads of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence certify that each refugee doesn’t pose a threat to the U.S.
“When we allow refugees into this country, we must be guided by one single principle,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said on the House floor. “If you are a terrorist or a threat to our country, you are not getting in. Period.”
President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the legislation.
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“This legislation would introduce unnecessary and impractical requirements that would unacceptably hamper our efforts to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world, many of whom are victims of terrorism, and would undermine our partners in the Middle East and Europe in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis,” the White House said in a statement.
But Thursday’s outcome produced enough support to override a veto with more than two-thirds of the House voting for the bill.
Senate Republican leaders on Thursday were mulling what to do with the House bill. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters that the measure isn’t going anywhere in the upper chamber.
“Don’t worry, it won’t get passed,” Reid said Thursday. “Next question?”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, moved the bill to the floor quickly this week in response to last Friday’s terrorist strikes in Paris that killed at least 129 people. He said he wanted a “pause” in Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees.
“This is an urgent matter and that is why we’re dealing with this urgently,” Ryan said. “It just is common sense that we pause, re-evaluate and make sure that we have the proper standards in place to make sure something like what happened in Paris doesn’t happen here.”
The bill divided House Democrats.
The party’s leadership balked at the measure, calling it a prelude to ending the refugee resettlement program altogether and a betrayal of America’s tradition of welcoming oppressed peoples of all stripes.
Among the Democrats voting against the measure was Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.
“The people in this country right now are frightened over what they see as a flawed immigration system and even though we know that it takes 18 months longer and you’ve got to go through about three or four different agencies, the people are still scared,” he said.
He said that the screening process was rigorous: “I’ll bet you about 90 percent of us have been on the other side trying to get somebody in the country. It is tough. Somebody’s husband or wife, I’ve been through it with somebody in Turkey, and struggled and struggled for months and months before we could get it done. So it’s wrong that people believe that it’s easy.”
In the end, 47 Democrats broke party ranks and voted for the bill.
“This refugee situation is unnerving our people,” said Rep. David Scott, a Georgia Democrat and member of the Blue Dog Coalition of 15 centrist Democrats who announced their support for the bill Wednesday night. “So I’m going to keep my people in Georgia safe and the nation safe.”
Freshman Rep. Brad Ashford, a Nebraska Democrat who faces a tough re-election fight next year, called the Paris attacks “a game changer” and supported the bill, saying, “I cannot sit back and ignore the concerns of my constituents and the American public.”
Obama’s existing plan to resettle Syrian refugees in the U.S. has roused opposition since the Paris attacks, from more than 30 of the nation’s governors and disapproval from a majority of Americans.
An NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll released Wednesday found that Americans disapprove letting more refugees into the country by 56 to 41 percent.
House GOP leaders and sponsors of the bill said the measure is a prudent response to American concerns that what happened in Paris could happen in the United States. One of the alleged assailants in the Paris attacks reportedly arrived in Europe through Greece posing as a Syrian refugee.
Proponents of the resettlement program blasted the House vote Thursday. They say refugees already go through a stringent vetting process that takes 18 to 24 months from start to finish, according to State Department figures.
Backers of the bill do a disservice to America’s long tradition as a nation that welcomes vulnerable people in their greatest hour of need,” said Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, a human rights and anti-poverty organization.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
How they voted
Voting yes: Republican Reps. Kevin Yoder, Mike Pompeo, Lynn Jenkins, Tim Huelskamp.
Voting no: None.
Voting yes: Republican Reps. Sam Graves, Vicky Hartzler, Billy Long, Blaine Luetkemeyer, Ann Wagner, Jason Smith.
Voting no: Democratic Reps. Emanuel Cleaver, William Lacy Clay.