Hudson’s refugee bill passes by veto-proof margin

Published 12:05 am Friday, November 20, 2015

With a veto-proof margin, the U.S. House ignored a threat from President Barack Obama and passed a bill introduced by Rep. Richard Hudson to add new screening requirements for Syrian and Iraqi refugees trying to resettle in the United States.

The bill passed by a count of 289-137, with 47 Democrats voting for the measure. With its significant support, the bill — the American SAFE Act of 2015 — has enough votes to defy a veto threat from Obama as it moves to the U.S. Senate.

Thursday’s vote came six days after a burst of bombings and shootings in Paris killed 129 people, wounded many more and revived post-9/11 jitters in the U.S. and Europe. The attacks have turned the question of admitting people fleeing war-torn Syria and Iraq into a high-stakes political issue in both the United States and Europe, and many congressional Democrats were willing to vote against Obama for fear of angering voters nervous about security at home.

Democrats opposing the GOP bill said the U.S. has no business abandoning its age-old values, including being a safe haven for people fleeing countries racked by violence. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks and controls vast swathes of Syria and Iraq, despite a growing military campaign against them by the U.S. and other nations.

Republicans said that in dangerous times, the government must first protect its own.

“It is against the values of our nation and the values of a free society to give terrorists the opening they are looking for” by not tightening entry restrictions, said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

McCarthy and senior House Republicans contacted Hudson following the Paris attacks to ask about a bill he began drafting about a month ago, when FBI Director James Comey said the federal government didn’t have the ability to conduct thorough background checks on refugees.

Hudson said he worked on the bill slowly. Hudson began talking to U.S. House leadership about his bill, but more significant discussion dominated Congress.

“Once the Paris attacks happened, I think it focused people’s attention on this in a very sharp way,” Hudson said in a conference call after Thursday’s vote.

Hudson introduced his bill Monday — less than three days after the Paris attacks — and it immediately drew national attention.

The initial version of Hudson’s bill had dozens of Republican co-sponsors. Hudson staff cited a single Democratic cosponsor — Rep. Brad Ashford of Nebraska — of the original bill. Its second incarnation had the support of Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul as a sponsor.

The measure, which in effect would suspend admissions of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, would require the FBI to conduct background checks on people coming to the U.S. from those countries. It would oblige the heads of the FBI and Homeland Security Department and the director of national intelligence to certify to Congress that each refugee “is not a threat to the security of the United States.”

“We were looking for a common-sense solution that doesn’t say ‘stop all refugees,’ ” Hudson said. “It doesn’t say ‘no Syrian refugees.’ It simply says how do we ensure, on behalf of the American people, that we know who we’re letting into our country.”

Before Thursday’s House vote, the White House sent chief of staff Denis McDonough and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to the Capitol to try winning over Democrats. Democratic aides said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., had a forceful exchange with Johnson, saying that opposition to the bill would be a terrible vote for Democrats that could cost them seats in next year’s elections.

With the House’s 246 Republicans ready to solidly support the legislation, the administration was eager to keep the final tally for the bill below the two-thirds margin required to override a veto. In a sign of the conflicting political undercurrents confronting Democrats, senior House Democrats said they did not push rank-and-file lawmakers to oppose the bill.

“I’ve said to them from the start, ‘Nobody’s asked you to do anything. Do whatever works for you, for your district,'” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who opposed the legislation, told journalists in Washington.

The current refugee screening process typically takes 18 to 24 months and includes interviews, fingerprinting and database crosschecks by several federal agencies. Syrians undergo additional screening involving data from the U.N. Refugee Agency and interviews by Homeland Security Department officials trained to question Syrians.

The Obama administration wants to increase the 70,000 refugees to be admitted from around the world this year by 10,000, with much of the increase for Syrians.

The White House said that of 2,174 Syrians admitted to the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, none has been arrested or deported because of allegations they harbored extremist ambitions.

Republicans in Congress counter with statements from Obama administration officials stating there’s shortcomings in the current screening process. U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-5, said Hudson’s bill is a first step toward understanding and addressing security risks.

Foxx, whose district extends into Rowan County, voted for Hudson’s bill. Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat whose 12th District runs through Rowan, voted against the bill.

In a telephone conference after the vote, Hudson said Congress next should work to give Obama the authority to wage war on ISIS.

“If he wants to tie his own hands and put strings on himself, then that’s up to him,” Hudson said. “I’m not a planner. I’m not an expert on military strategies, and I’m not going to enter a bill that tells us how to kill ISIS, but as a member of Congress I’m willing to give this commander in chief full authority to go do it.”

Hudson expressed hesitation when asked whether any steps should be taken to vet refugees already in the U.S.

“No one is tracking them other than the refugee network,” he said. “In terms of law enforcement, state agencies or federal agencies, no one is accountable for where these refugees are. I’m not sure what the right answer is.”

In North Carolina, Hudson’s actions have attracted an array of support from elected officials, including Gov. Pat McCrory. Following the House vote, McCrory issued a public statement, asking Obama to reconsider the veto threat because of the veto-proof margin.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.