Republicans in the House of Representatives, who quickly pushed through a bill late last year to temporarily halt Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the United States, want the Senate majority leader to bring up the measure for a vote soon after the upper body reconvenes Monday.
The bill — written by Reps. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., and Michael McCaul, R-Texas — would put pressure on federal security and intelligence officials to change the vetting process for all refugees entering the country. It would require additional reporting of such security measures and would mandate that senior-level security officials personally sign off on each refugee’s admittance.
The legislation doesn’t specify what additional screening processes should be in place. Hudson said he trusted top federal officials to design new ways to vet refugees and certify their safety.
The issue has been a contentious one for Republicans and Democrats for weeks in Washington since FBI Director James Comey testified before a House committee and said his agency could not unequivocally say the U.S. refugee-resettlement program posed no national security risk.
Saying refugee screening is a top priority for national security, Republican Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana on Thursday circulated among colleagues a letter. He expressed urgency on Friday to send the letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Last month, House Republicans looked to include the proposed refugee halt as a “rider” to the massive federal spending omnibus legislation that took lawmakers weeks to negotiate, working across party lines. It wasn’t part of the final law.
Now, Zinke’s letter says, Congress should act “to provide for a strong national defense…. We can think of no better effort than to move a bill forward that emphasizes the safety and security of the American people.”
Yasmine Taeb, a lobbyist with a Quaker organization called the Friends Committee on National Legislation, provided McClatchy with a copy of Zinke’s letter Thursday afternoon. Taeb has been working with lawmakers for several weeks to oppose the refugee bill, arguing it is a “fear-mongering” tactic and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Critics of the McCaul-Hudson refugee bill say the attempt is misguided and that security screenings are rigorous enough to keep terrorists from exploiting the asylum-seeking process. The United States has admitted more than 2,000 Syrian refugees in recent years with no documented instances of terrorists being allowed entry through that process.
By late afternoon Thursday, spokeswoman Heather Swift with Zinke’s office said that at least 20 House members, including McCaul and Hudson, had signed the letter to send to McConnell.
President Barack Obama has vowed to veto the bill.
Hudson’s proposal was voted on first in the House before a more detailed bill, cowritten by McCaul, was introduced the next day and passed.
The bill, called the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015, passed with a veto-proof majority in a bipartisan 289-137 vote.