WASHINGTON — A Republican senator is making the case in the days after the Paris terrorist attacks that a vote on funding the Syrian refugee resettlement should be included in any government funding bill — essentially raising the threat of a government shutdown in an effort to block the Obama administration’s efforts to accept more Syrian refugees.
Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions sent a letter to his colleagues on Monday, asking them to include a measure that would require a vote on the administration’s refugee plans and funding for resettled Syrian refugees in the spending bill that needs to pass Congress by Dec. 11 to keep the government open.
"Absent a change in the way in which Congress provides funds for refugee admissions, processing, and related matters, this ramp-up will occur despite both public and Congressional opposition," Sessions writes of the plan to accept new refugees, outlining several concerns.
He told reporters Monday evening that "the most important thing is that Congress assert itself on this issue" given the "huge impact" it will have taxpayers.
Members of Congress returned to Washington Monday afternoon for the first time since the Paris attacks, which killed at least 129 people, on Friday. Several Republicans have raised concerns about the administration’s plans to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016 after it was discovered that one of the suspected attackers may have entered Europe through Greece with a Syrian passport.
Fifteen House Republicans have also called for tying the issue of Syrian refugees to the spending bill, but their proposal would reportedly go a step further and defund resettlement for refugees all together instead of having a separate up or down vote. House Republicans are scheduled to meet Tuesday morning and will likely discuss plans moving forward on dealing with the administration's plans for Syrian refugees.
But on the Senate side, other than Sessions, Republicans said they haven't had a chance to discuss tying funding for refugees to the government spending bill. Instead, they focused on calling for a more thorough vetting process for refugees and prioritizing bringing in women and children over single men.
"What I'm trying to get them to do is at least prioritize who they bring in," said Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. "What I want to make sure is that we don't short circuit the vetting process in any way, shape or form. We have to be 100% certain that whoever we let in poses no threat to this country, which is why I'm suggesting women, children, relatives of Syrian-American citizens -- who could also be held responsible for the refugees who came in -- as a pretty reasonable response. It also shows I think the appropriate level of compassion."
Johnson said he is planning on holding a hearing later this week on how the Department of Homeland Security will vet the 10,000 Syrian refugees.
"I think if the administration doesn't have the ability to guarantee that the vetting process is one that has integrity, obviously there'd be a lot of concerns about people coming in," said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, hasn't called for defunding the resettlement program either, but said in a floor speech that he has asked that the spending bill include a "comprehensive plan on how security will be achieved."
"I think considering the fact that it's kind of questionable whether we have a vetting system that's very good to begin with...there is reason to have a pause," Grassley later told reporters.
And although Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he agreed with halting the refugee program until the U.S. can ensure the vetting process is thorough, he criticized those in his party pushing using the funding bill as a vehicle to deal with the issue.
"Our vetting process has to be started all over again," he said, adding that it's too soon for Republicans to block the administration's efforts using the spending bill. "Oh we'll block this! We'll block that!," he said has become the thinking among some of his colleagues.
Earlier in the day, newly-elected Speaker Paul Ryan stressed that House Republicans are looking at all options related to dealing with Syrian refugees.
"Look we’ve always been a generous nation in taking in refugees,” Ryan said in a radio interview with Bill Bennett. "But this is a unique situation. This is a situation where you have single men coming over, which is not women and children. What we’re doing is I’ve asked the committees of jurisdiction in the House to come up with recommendations for how we can immediately address this particular situation. So 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.”
When pressed if Congress could use the funding measure, Ryan did not rule it out.
"We have a funding at the end of the year bill, so we’re looking at all of our options,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re protecting ourselves.”
And House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price also released a statement, calling for the suspension of the refugee program.
"It has been confirmed that at least one of the terrorists in Paris used the current refugee system out of Syria as a Trojan horse,” Price said. "We must not allow the United States to experience the same fate and thus must suspend our refugee program until certainty is brought to the vetting process. Common sense must not be trumped by willful ignorance for the sake of dogmatic conformity.”