Here’s How Obama Could Win the Fight over Syrian Refugees
Policy + Politics

Here’s How Obama Could Win the Fight over Syrian Refugees

© Umit Bektas / Reuters

Nearly 50 House Democratic lawmakers split with the White House and joined an almost unanimous GOP conference to approve legislation designed to “pause” the flow of Syrian refugees into the U.S. The bill would effectively freeze Syrian immigration by requiring a much higher level of vetting and approval for each and every refugee.

Thursday’s 289-137 vote -- with 47 Democrats voting for the Republican-crafted bill – marks a major rebuke to President Obama and his effort to bring 10,000 displaced migrants into the country next year.

Related: Congress Wants to Slam the Door on the Syrian Refugee Program

“Today the House put politics aside to help keep the American people safe,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said in a statement after the vote.

The administration lobbied House Democrats until just a few hours before the vote, with Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough paying an early morning visit to Capitol Hill to twist arms and convince members that the existing 18- to 24-month vetting process for refugees is enough.

Those efforts failed. And while the 47 defections were fewer than Democratic leaders feared, it indicates that Republicans aren’t the only ones worried about Obama’s plan in the aftermath of the ISIS attack on Paris.

One of the jihadists may have used a fake passport to slip into Europe as a refugee, prompting new fears that ISIS and other extremist groups could exploit the Syrian crisis to sneak operatives onto U.S. soil.

Related: A Testy Obama Warns Republicans: Your Rhetoric Is Helping ISIS

The House bill requires the FBI director to “certify” each individual refugee to the Department of Homeland Security chief and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence before he or she is allowed into the country. Getting the infrastructure for the program up and running could take weeks or months, essentially halting the resettlement program.

However, it would be premature to say the president has lost this battle.

While the House took action less than a week after the carnage in Paris, the Senate won’t take up the bill until after the Thanksgiving recess. Tempers could cool by then, especially if there are no other extremist attacks.

Related: Funding for Syrian Refugees Could Spark a Big Fight in Congress

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (NV) has indicated that Democrats could bottle up the legislation to prevent it from ever getting a vote. And given the extraordinary pressure Congress has come under to respond in some way to the Paris attacks, the upper chamber could wind up modifying the bill in some way.

For example, there could be reforms in the visa waiver program, which allows some Europeans to travel to the U.S. without a visa – something top Democrats have pushed for.

The Senate could also relax some of the measure’s screening rules, making it more palatable to Democrats.

President Obama has threatened to veto the refugee legislation should it reach his desk. And while Thursday’s vote tally represents a veto-proof majority, several Democrats could change their minds, since voting for a bill is very different from voting to override the president.

"I am confident that in the unlikely scenario that this bill comes back to the House, we would sustain a presidential veto,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in a statement. She also noted that she didn’t “whip” lawmakers to vote against the bill, basically leaving members to decide for themselves how to vote.

If Democrats manage to defeat the GOP’s refugee bill, Republicans could move to have it attached as an amendment to the must-pass omnibus funding bill that would keep the federal government open past December 11.

If the GOP thinks it has enough leverage, it could also include a provision in the spending legislation that either gums up or cuts off resettlement efforts. The White House, in turn, could dig in its heels, raising the possibility of a high-stakes showdown over the issue that could lead to a government shutdown.