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Campaign Venom Blocks Syrian Refugee Debate

McConnell arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy lunch Wednesday in the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
McConnell arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy lunch Wednesday in the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The rancorous politics of the presidential campaign spilled onto the Senate floor Wednesday and blocked debate on a bill that would effectively keep refugees from Iraq and Syria from entering the United States.  

Republicans argued that the legislation, which cleared the House in November with an overwhelming majority, is needed after recent terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic extremists. But Democrats said the bill only feeds the fear and hatred stirred up by GOP presidential candidates.  

On Wednesday morning, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Democrats would support bringing the legislation to the floor only if they could vote on a handful of amendments, including one that would put senators on the record about GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s proposal to block Muslims from entering the country.  

“By advancing this bill, Republicans are creating a terrible distraction for the sake of embracing the hateful rhetoric and vitriol of the Republican Party’s standard bearers, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz,” Reid said. “This should come as a surprise to no one.”  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky would not agree to vote on Reid’s proposed amendments, but urged Democrats to vote for bringing the legislation up for debate anyway. “I understand that the political pressure to oppose this balanced bill may be intense, but it’s also intensely short-sighted and I urge our Democratic friends to resist it,” McConnell said on the floor Wednesday morning.  

The measure fell five votes short of the 60-vote margin needed to invoke cloture on the bill. Only two Democrats, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, joined Republicans in agreeing to bring the measure up for debate.  

The politically charged issue brought Senate’s GOP presidential candidates — Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio — back from the campaign trail to record their votes for enhanced screening. But even though Trump wasn’t in the Capitol, he was the candidate claiming the oxygen.  

In addition to the proposed amendment on Trump’s campaign pledge, Reid said Democrats also wanted votes on measures related to barring suspected terrorists on the no-fly list from purchasing firearms; increasing funds for police counter-terrorism efforts and airport security; and passing a comprehensive Democratic security bill.  Not all of these measure were likely to garner support from the Senate’s Republican majority. But voting against them could prove potentially embarrassing to vulnerable candidates.  

McConnell stopped short of agreeing to Reid’s request, saying instead that he would allow an open amendment process, alternating amendments between the two parties.  

That decision drew ire from Democrats. Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin on Illinois, who said Senate Republicans have opted to “run like scalded cats,” away from Reid’s amendment about the Trump immigration proposal.  

Reid did not say whether the Trump-related amendment would reappear on future legislation, such as a bipartisan energy bill that’s expected to be on the floor next week. “What I personally am tired of is the Republicans saying one thing and doing another,” Reid said. “We have been a constructive minority. We have worked with them to get things done.”  

The underlying bill, known as the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, or American SAFE Act, passed the House  in November with a lopsided vote, 289-137. But Reid said from the outset that the measure would not enjoy the same kind of support in the Senate, pledging Democrats would prevent the GOP from getting the 60 votes needed to bring it to the Senate floor.  

The bill would require that refugees from Iraq or Syria seeking to enter the United States, or anyone who has been in those countries at any time since March 2011, receive an extensive background check.  

The bill also stipulated that before being admitted as a refugee, the FBI must certify to the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence that the applicant has received a background check. The applicant can only be admitted after DHS, concurrently with the FBI and the DNI, certifies to Congress that the applicant is not a threat. The bill also requires the DHS inspector general to conduct annual reviews of the certifications and that DHS report to Congress each month the number of people admitted.  

For now, the bill is stalled in the Senate. But one committee chairman with jurisdiction over the issue said he would try and find common ground.  

Asked earlier on Wednesday about the next steps if the bill did not get cloture, Homeland Security and Government Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said, “I guess what I would do is try and find out what objections Democratic senators had to even proceeding to debate on the bill, and see if there’s anything we can to modify it to get there support … I’m going to try and get some results.”  


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