Obama Is Losing the Argument About Syrian Refugees

Anxious Democrats are joining Republicans to slow the entry of those fleeing Syria.

President Barack Obama.
President Barack Obama on Oct. 27, 2015 in Chicago.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Obama administration’s ability to defeat Republican legislative proposals to cut off the resettling of additional Syrian refugees hinges on maintaining unity among Democrats, who might be politically tempted after the Paris attacks to side with the GOP’s restrictionist rhetoric.

So far, it’s not going very well.

Forty-seven House Democrats sided with 242 Republicans to pass the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act on Thursday. That’s a veto-proof majority among the 426 members who voted today. One can see why: It’s a clever piece of legislation. Though it doesn’t explicitly ban resettling additional Syrian refugees or institute Sen. Ted Cruz’s “Christians only” policy, it does make the task of resettling said refugees bureaucratically arduous. The legislation requires the FBI director, the secretary of Homeland Security, and the director of National Intelligence to certify that each Syrian (or Iraqi) refugee doesn’t present a security risk. And then the DHS inspector general has to go through all of the approvals, too. The effect would be to slow the acceptance of refugees to a crawl, putting in place the freeze Republicans wanted under the inconspicuous message of “just another layer of vetting.” That’s enough cover for anxious Democrats to support it—or rather, enough pressure that they can’t vote against it.

You could see this coming. The Democratic governor of New Hampshire, Maggie Hassan, who’s running for Senate against incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte, joined most Republican governors earlier this week in seeking to keep Syrian refugees from being resettled in her state for the time being. Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democrats’ leader-in-waiting, also said earlier this week that a “pause” in accepting refugees “may be necessary,” a stance at odds with that of the current Democratic leader. (Schumer has since tried to walk his comments back.) In a classic case of senators being hilarious prima donnas, they reportedly were quite miffed Wednesday when the White House sent over the deputy FBI director to brief them in a closed-door session instead of the director. Many House Democrats, meanwhile, found White House chief of staff Denis McDonough’s pitch unconvincing in a meeting Thursday morning. (House Democrats, in general, don’t appreciate that the only time they hear from the administration is when the administration really wants something from them.)

Democrats facing close races are reluctant to stand with the White House on this one. A Bloomberg poll released yesterday showed that 53 percent of Americans don’t believe any Syrian refugees should be accepted, while only 28 percent support the administration’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees. Republicans are very much against accepting refugees. Forty-six percent of Democrats support the administration’s position, but 36 percent don’t believe any refugees should be resettled and 9 percent believe only Christians should. Unless Democrats are running in safe districts or states, they will not want to make themselves vulnerable to the inevitable “[Such and such Democrat] voted to let INSANE TERRORISTS into AMERICA to BOMB EVERYONE” ads in the coming elections.

The SAFE Act will now go to the Senate where, if called up, it may surpass 60 votes—Reid is denying that it will—though hitting a veto-proof 67 would be a tougher task. What seems certain, though, is that the White House’s pitch for everyone to just calm down about refugees and visitors from countries with terrorist organizations is not working. Senate Democrats may reject the House bill, but they’re already pivoting to alternatives because they recognize that they need to do something to alleviate fears. The legislation introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Jeff Flake, would block European citizens “who spent time in Syria or Iraq in the past five years” from obtaining visa waivers.

Most likely there was nothing the White House could have done to stop this post-Paris freak out. But as refreshing as they may have been, President Obama’s first comments on the refugee situation perhaps shouldn’t have been to mock the no more refugees! position. He could have done that later on, after offering an explanation for how thorough the vetting process for refugees already is. He argues that knee-jerk reactions like barring all refugees fleeing a war zone don’t represent “who we are” as a nation. Apparently they do.