Democrats on both sides of the Capitol want President Barack Obama to get tougher on the Islamic State, in both words and deeds.
House Democrats on Thursday expressed frustration with the White House over its messaging on a GOP-crafted bill the chamber passed Thursday, 289-137, that would tighten screening processes for individuals coming from Iraq and Syria. And on the Senate side, some in Obama’s party want a more muscular response to last Friday’s attacks in Paris.
“I think the president should have been more forceful in his original statements,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., told CQ Roll Call.
House Armed Services Committee member Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said of Obama and his top aides: “I don’t think they have done enough to explain the national security problems that we would create by passing something like” the Republican-crafted screening measure.
“If all anyone hears is ‘ISIL is sleeping under your bed,’ they’re going to be scared,” Larsen added, using one of several acronyms for the Islamic State.
Pelosi: Refugee Bill ‘Sends Wrong Message’
Senate Intelligence ranking member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told CQ Roll Call she has a “slightly different view on what I would like to see us do.”
“I see ISIL … a little differently [than Obama]. I do not see them being contained,” she said, a reference to the president’s assessment one day before the Paris attacks that the group was mostly being kept in a box in Iraq and Syria.
“I see them in 12 countries, and establishing themselves in nine additional countries. … It isn’t just Iraq and Syria,” Feinstein said. “I see them with money, with a government, with 30,000 fighters.”
Calling ISIS “a very serious thing,” Feinstein said she wants Obama to lead the way on forming an alliance to fight the group that includes the United States, France, Russia and even Iran. She believes only that combination of multinational coalition and top military force, could “mount the kind of effort that would really incapacitate them in a number of places.”
As House members from both political parties coalesced around altering the entrance screening process for individuals trying to come to the U.S. from Iraq and Syria, the White House mostly defended the existing screening regime.
“The most rigorous screening procedures that are in place for anybody seeking to enter the United States are in place for refugees applying for asylum in the United States,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday in Malaysia.“This means that they have to undergo a background check. Biographic and biometric information is collected about these individuals. There are in-person interviews that are conducted.
“The information that is collected about them is run through databases,” Earnest said. “That is part of the explanation for why it takes an average of 18 to 24 months before an individual can be admitted as a refugee.”
Back in Washington, House GOP leaders quickly crafted and passed a bill with harsher changes than an alternate measure Democrats were prevented from bringing to a vote.
A closed-door meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough only seemed to amplify Democrats’ frustrations with the White House’s refugees stance and counter-ISIS strategy.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., opposed the GOP screening bill but offered the White House some “constructive” advice: “Help members see why the [Republican] bill is going to essentially raise a threshold so that nobody’s gonna get certified. I mean, I think it’s important to make that point a little more explicit.”
House Armed Services Committee member Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said being on the other side of the globe “puts the president at a disadvantage in terms of being able to deal with the blow-back that is occurring here at home.”
And House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., said he “would hope the White House would sit down with the leadership of both parties and craft something the American people want” to prevent Islamic State operatives from using America’s refugee policies to slip into the country to conduct Paris-like attacks.
Still, Engel and other Democrats are mostly standing by Obama and his aides.
“I think the president is trying to put together a cohesive policy,” he said. “We don’t need to be hysterical. There’s a long way to go.”
“I think that the administration is trying to get out information about just how rigorous the process is,” House Intelligence ranking member Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., told CQ Roll Call. “They have expressed an openness to changes that work — but they don’t want to see a shutdown of the [screening] system under the guise of reform.”
But Schiff also had some advice for White House officials: “I think they’re going to have to be resolute to satisfy the concerns people have raised.”
Emma Dumain contributed to this report