WASHINGTON—The assault on Paris has sparked widespread calls from congressional Republicans to end or limit U.S. refugee admissions from Syria, with some threatening to use critical spending legislation as leverage just weeks from a must-pass deadline.
The issue looms as a sudden and unexpected challenge to new House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who faces a Dec. 11 deadline to pass a package of spending bills or risk a partial government shutdown. The legislation was already tricky because of the potential for policy fights on issues like Planned Parenthood and the environment, and now some conservatives want to add language requiring congressional approval of any refugee plan.
That could allow Republicans to block President Barack Obama’s goal of bringing 10,000 more Syrian refugees to the U.S. during the current budget year.
“Filling your country up with people who have a completely different belief system … and expecting they won’t rise up against their benefactor is foolish,” Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a leading immigration hardliner, said in an interview. He said that no refugees should be permitted into the U.S. from Syria “unless they be Christian refugees that are facing genocide,” and said that the spending bill should contain language specifying as much.
A number of GOP presidential candidates and Senate Republicans issued similar calls, pointing to indications that one of the perpetrators in Friday’s attacks might have entered France with a Syrian passport. Some called for a halt in all refugee admissions.
“At this time, President Obama should stop any refugees from coming into our country until we have assurances that effective safeguards are in place to prevent radical terrorists from using the system to their advantage,” said Sen. David Perdue, a Georgia Republican.
Such comments drew criticism from refugee advocates and from some Democrats, even as most agreed on the need to redouble security and vetting efforts. “Are we to abandon allies and partners awash with refugees and refuse to do our part?” asked Rep. Adam Schiff of California, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Adding a contentious policy fight to the spending bill ratchets up chances for a government shutdown fight like the ones that undermined the previous House speaker, John Boehner. But in an interview on Monday with conservative talk host Bill Bennett, Ryan did not rule such an approach in or out.
“We’re looking at all of our options about how do we make sure that something like this doesn’t happen coming here to us with refugees,” Ryan said.
The U.S. has admitted fewer than 2,200 Syrian refugees since Oct. 1, 2011 and the process for entering this country as a refugee is lengthy. Obama administration officials insist the vetting is good and that there is no need to back down from the goal of admitting 10,000 more refugees this year.
The administration announced that goal earlier this fall after a photograph of a little Syrian boy washed up on a beach sparked calls for compassion, including from some congressional Republicans.
Now the brutal Paris attacks have caused a backlash and some of those same lawmakers are calling for the U.S. to close its borders to refugees.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, GOP candidate for president, was one of those who supported accepting more Syrian refugees. On Monday he called for a “timeout” in such admissions.
But, not every Republican agreed with keeping out refugees. “We have a process in place, a pretty thorough vetting process,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. “We’ll want to make sure that’s thorough enough but I would want to do that before calling for a stop.”