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GOP eyes spending bill as leverage in refugee fight

The Hill logo The Hill 11/27/2015 Cristina Marcos
GOP eyes spending bill as leverage in refugee fight © Provided by The Hill GOP eyes spending bill as leverage in refugee fight

Republicans are eyeing an upcoming government spending bill as their best leverage for pausing the Obama administration’s refugee resettlement program in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris. 

Some GOP lawmakers are already saying they'll vote against the catchall spending bill, known as an omnibus, if it doesn't block funds for refugee resettlement for people coming from Syria and nearby regions in the Middle East. 

"I think that we have to exert maximum leverage. If we don’t, I think it is national security malpractice," said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. 

The House passed legislation before the Thanksgiving recess to prevent any refugees from Syria or Iraq from entering the U.S. unless the government can certify that none of them pose national security threats. 

But with President Obama threatening to issue a veto and Senate Democrats indicating they will filibuster it next week, Republicans are looking at the omnibus spending bill as another option.  

Current funding runs out on Dec. 11, with a government shutdown hanging in the balance. 

"If the president stops this bill, then we’ll have to deal with getting his attention on funding," Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said of the House's refugee certification measure. "It’s the only must-pass legislation left." 

A third of the 246-member House GOP conference is calling for a policy rider to prevent federal funds from going toward admitting refugees from Syria and neighboring countries unless the government can ensure the resettlement program could not be co-opted by would-be terrorists. 

Seventy-four House Republicans signed onto a letter spearheaded by Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) this week urging GOP leaders to include such language in the omnibus spending bill. 

"We cannot allow the refugee program to serve as a Trojan Horse threat to American national security," the lawmakers wrote in the letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.). 

The Obama administration maintains that it already thoroughly screens refugees over the course of what is typically a nearly two-year process for each applicant. President Obama is standing by his plan to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. next year. 

However, FBI Director James Comey acknowledged in a hearing last month that certain "gaps" remain in screening refugees coming from war-torn Syria. 

Talk of using a government spending bill as leverage to modify the refugee program bears some resemblance to the fight exactly one year ago when many Republicans wanted to block funds for President Obama's sweeping executive actions on immigration. That led to the "Cromnibus," which funded all of the federal government for a year but only provided two months' worth of funding for the Department of Homeland Security. 

In the end, Republicans ultimately acquiesced to funding the department without conditions, as the executive actions remain stuck in the court system. 

But this time, Republicans think the public will be on their side amid fears of terrorism from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in the weeks after the massacre in Paris. Reports that one of the Paris attackers entered Europe by posing as a Syrian refugee have further fueled security concerns over the U.S. resettlement program. 

Even Democrats are feeling pressure to respond in some way legislatively. Forty-seven Democrats defied President Obama's veto threat last week and voted with all but two Republicans in favor of the refugee certification bill. The showing from Democrats secured a veto-proof majority based on the number of lawmakers voting that day. 

Speaking of last year's fight over the immigration executive actions, Babin said, "Forty-seven Democrats didn’t vote with us over that issue. We didn’t see this. This time, we see a veto-proof majority forming in the United States Congress." 

Still, Babin wouldn't commit to voting against the omnibus if it doesn't include a rider regarding the refugee program. 

"I think having it in an omnibus would certainly enhance its chances of becoming law," Babin said. "But I'm not giving up on what passed last week." 

Multiple Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are calling for the omnibus to block refugee resettlement until Congress affirmatively votes to authorize permitting new refugees. 

"As Chairmen of Subcommittees on both the Appropriations and Judiciary Committees, we believe it is essential that any government funding bill cancel the President’s blank check for refugee resettlement," both of Alabama's GOP senators, Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, said in a joint statement. 

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who sided with the two House Republicans to vote against the refugee certification bill, argued that the measure didn't go far enough as would outright blocking federal funds for the resettlement program. 

“Defunding President Obama’s refugee program is the only way to ensure that America can actually stop a refugee influx until we can determine without question that we are not giving terrorists a free pass into the United States," Jones said. 

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