Updated November 19, 2:00 p.m.
Republican leaders in Congress don’t want to kill the Syrian refugee program outright. But they may end up shutting it down anyway with a few added layers of red tape.
On a bipartisan vote of 289-137, the House on Thursday approved legislation aimed at “pausing” the resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq amid fears that ISIS terrorists could infiltrate the program after last week’s attacks in Paris. At first glance, the five-page bill appears rather perfunctory: It merely requires that three top national security officials—the FBI director, the secretary of Homeland Security, and the director of national intelligence—certify that each refugee is “not a threat to the security of the United States.” The legislation does not explicitly require the government to suspend the program, and a certification would seem to be a formality given that refugees already undergo extensive background checks that take as long as two years.
Politically, the goal is straightforward. Republicans kept the proposal narrow to attract Democratic support and show their constituents that Congress could, in a bipartisan way, tighten the refugee program without terminating it. The policy, noted House Speaker Paul Ryan, would judge refugee applicants only through the lens of security and would not distinguish between Christians and Muslims, like presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have demanded. “We can be compassionate, and we can also be safe,” Ryan said on the House floor. “It would mean a pause in the program until we can be certain beyond any doubt that those coming here are not a threat. It’s that simple. And I don’t think it’s asking too much.” The House GOP proposal wasn’t aggressive enough for some conservatives, including Heritage Action and a few lawmakers who proposed amendments to suspend the program altogether.