WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday called for a “pause” in the U.S. program accepting Syrian refugees after the terror attacks in Paris last week launched by ISIS, and the House will vote Thursday on legislation to mandate it.
“This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry, so we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population,” Ryan told reporters.
“I, for one, don’t feel particularly comforted by the assertion that our government can vet these refugees,” McConnell said. “At the very least it strikes me that we need a pause or a moratorium because the American people are quite concerned and upset by the possibility of terrorist coming into our country through some sort of refugee program.”
Ryan announced he was creating a task force made up of the Republican chairmen from the Homeland Security, Armed Services, Intelligence, Appropriations, Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees to fashion legislation to address the refugee issue and come up with additional homeland security recommendations.
“This is not about politics. This is about national security,” Ryan said, and called on all members of the House to address the situation quickly.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters on his way into a classified briefing that the House will vote on Thursday on a bill requiring a beefed up vetting system. The bill would suspend the U.S. program allowing refugees from Syria to enter the country until the Secretary of the Homeland Security Department certifies that those wanting to resettle in the U.S. do not pose a security threat.
“This is just a start,” McCarthy said, noting members wanted to vote on something before the Thanksgiving recess.
Drafted by North Carolina Republican Rep. Richard Hudson, the proposal also requires that the FBI certify that those applying to enter the U.S. have had background checks.
So far one House Democrat, Rep. Brad Ashford, has signed on as a supporter of Hudson’s bill, and GOP aides expect the measure to have broader bipartisan support.
In the Senate, several Democrats defended the program assessing Syrian refugees as painstaking and rigorous and pointed to as evidence the low number of Syrian refuges allowed into the country over the last four years. They also said many of the vetted refugees were rejected. But they also said lawmakers and the public need more information on exactly the program works before they can assess if changes are needed.
Obama administration officials, who briefed House members Tuesday, are scheduled to brief senators on the intricacies of the vetting program in a closed session Wednesday afternoon.
“I don’t think at this stage we should be pausing until we get all the facts,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
Even top Republicans admitted they need to learn more about the vetting process.
“We’re going to get a briefing about it,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican. “What’s being done already? What further can be done? What steps might we take? I think it’s all very much a subject of discussion.”
But one Democratic leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, acknowledged a pause might be needed.
“We’re waiting for the briefing tomorrow,” he said. “A pause may be necessary. We’re going to look at it.”
McCarthy is coordinating the speaker’s task force, which Ryan said is meeting daily. The speaker sidestepped questions on what new legislation would do or how long the pause he wants for the program should last, but he said there needs to be a more comprehensive plan in place to address homeland security issues.
“The intelligence community, as I’ve said numerous times, has been warning about this for over a year now so this didn’t come as any shock to us that something like this happened because we knew this was the strategic plan of radical Islamists,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes told reporters.
GOP Rep. Peter King, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters he has serious doubts about the current system and argued that, “as a practical matter, there is no vetting” now of those refugees who want to resettle in the United States.
But DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson defended the vetting process after he conducted the classified briefing for all House members, saying it’s important the process is “thorough, careful.”
“It’s better than it used to be, and were going to continue on this path because there is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the world, other nations are stepping up and we should do so to. We are looked to by other nations in the world for leadership in this area,” he told reporters.
Ryan noted that he was sending President Barack Obama the annual defense bill to sign Tuesday. In a swipe at the President’s recent statement saying ISIS is “contained,” the speaker noted that the defense bill calls for the administration to lay out a plan to defeat the terror group. “A containment plan is not enough — that has failed.”
When pressed whether Congress needs to vote on a new war authorization, Ryan said he believed the current measure in place now gives the administration the authority it needs but that the President needs to lay out a more comprehensive strategy to combat ISIS.