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Pope Will Find a Receptive Congress on Refugee Issue

Pope Francis will find a fairly receptive audience if, as expected, he devotes part of his Thursday address to Congress to urge the United States to do more to alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis.

Responding to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have rushed Europe’s borders in recent months and weeks, the pope earlier this month called on “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe [to] host a family.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they want to see the United States do more, though they differ about what actions should be taken. Some Republicans want to see U.S. air power used to establish safe zones in Syria where civilians would be protected from much of the fighting. Meanwhile, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., has called for the United States to resettle 100,000 Syrians in the United States within the next year, 90,000 more than President Barack Obama announced would be welcomed.

“I’m convinced that bringing in more refugees is smart from a position of conscience and a position of national security,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., on Tuesday. “The pope’s clearly not going to make the latter case, but he can make the former in a very convincing way.”

There appears to be stronger bipartisan support for increasing the amount of humanitarian aid the United States provides to U.N. agencies and to nongovernmental organizations that provide critical services to Syrians. To date, Washington has provided $4.5 billion in relief.

“I do think the first step needs to be supporting those countries that are taking the refugees in, providing additional monetary aid,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. “Beyond that, we will have to have a discussion about what we should be doing when it comes to accepting refugees. We need to make sure they are carefully vetted before they are brought to U.S. soil but I do think there is more that we could do to assist other countries.”

In a brief speech at the White House on Wednesday, the pope gave a small preview of the remarks he has planned for Thursday’s speech.

“I will have the honor of addressing Congress, where I hope, as a brother of this country, to offer words of encouragement to those called to guide the nation’s political future in fidelity to its founding principles,” the pope said.

“I would like all men and women of good will in this great nation to support the efforts of the international community to protect the vulnerable in our world,” he continued.

Calls for Stronger U.S. Action

Eleanor Acer, director of Human Rights First’s refugee protection program, said she hoped the pope would urge Washington to accept the resettlement of 100,000 Syrians in fiscal 2016.

“We’re hoping to really hear him call on the United States to increase its resettlement,” Acer said. “That example will help persuade other countries to take in more Syrian refugees as well.”

Of a pre-war population of 22 million, more than 11.6 million Syrians are now living as internally displaced people or as refugees. The United Nation has received just 38 percent of what it says is required to meet Syrians’ humanitarian needs for this year. As a result, food assistance has been sharply cut and camp services have declined, leading many to decide to risk their lives in attempting the dangerous and uncertain crossing into Europe.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said he is looking forward to the pope’s address as “a historic moment that I’m sure I’ll not soon forget.”

Asked what he thought lawmakers’ reactions would be if Pope Francis called for decisive action to mitigate the refugee crisis, the Mississippi Republican responded: “If he urges a variety of actions, I think people will listen respectively and attentively with an open mind.”

Murphy told CQ he was not expecting the pope’s address to radically move member positions.

“Hopefully, he can accentuate the places where we can work together on addressing humanitarian needs,” the freshman senator said. “Our expectations shouldn’t be too high. I’m hopeful that he’ll move the needle a couple of inches, but he’s not going to make converts with his speech.”

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., however, thinks highly enough of the power of Pope Francis’ bully pulpit on the issue to include a mention in a letter nominating the pontiff for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize

“As the world struggles to cope with a flood of refugees not seen since the end of World War II, the pope has emerged as perhaps the leading advocate for relief,” states the letter, which is now being circulated for lawmakers’ signature. “His compassion has also taken the concrete form of inviting a Syrian refugee family to reside in his residence at the Vatican.”