The Fight Over Syrian Refugees Is Going to Get Nuts

Republicans may actually threaten another government shutdown to block them from coming in.

Paul Ryan
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan holds his first news conference at Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington on Nov. 3, 2015.

Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters

Go ahead and stop your timers: It took a bit less than 72 hours for Friday’s barbaric attacks in Paris to somehow be turned into a cudgel over funding the government.

Wait, what? Let’s slow down a touch and look at the rapid succession of events over the weekend and into Monday that brought us to this sadly predictable moment.

On Friday, terrorists who have since been linked to ISIS attacked Paris, killing 129 and injuring about 350 others. Saturday saw Democratic presidential candidates discuss, without much specificity, their desire to beef up an international coalition to fight ISIS, in which regional countries would take on the lion’s share of fighting on the ground. Republican presidential candidates were exceptionally disappointed that none of the candidates would use “Islamic” to describe the religious nature of the terrorist threat.

Republican presidential candidates and leaders spent their weekends explaining how they, in contrast to the sitting commander-in-chief, would kill every last radicalized Muslim in the known world through kinetic military action. Jeb Bush, speaking on Meet the Press, argued that the United States should “declare war” against the Islamic State and deploy ground troops to the region. Sen. Ted Cruz, who has been reluctant to call for any intervention that might represent a long-term nation-building effort, called for a hailstorm of missile strikes that pays no heed to potential civilian casualties. Others have stated that the Obama administration’s policy of targeted airstrikes is nowhere near what’s necessary, but have yet to offer much specificity in how their policies would be any different.

What the candidates were in near unanimity about was the need to stop President Obama’s plan to resettle an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. Though Donald Trump earned some mockery in early October when he suggested that Syrian refugees could represent an ISIS “Trojan horse,” such a view has quickly come to dominate the Republican field. Cruz and Bush represent different factions of the party but agree that only Christians displaced by the conflict should be allowed to resettle in the United States. Ben Carson called the administration’s decision to accept the refugees a “suspension of intellect.” Sen. Rand Paul said that he wouldn’t have “invite[d] the refugees in the first place.” Sen. Marco Rubio: also not big on accepting refugees.

By Monday, Republican governors were escalating the issue. As of this writing, 14 governors—13 of them Republican—had said that they would seek to prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states.

Which brings us to the United States Congress and new Speaker Paul Ryan, whose House needs to pass an omnibus appropriations bill by next month to keep the federal government funded. Carson says that he has sent Ryan a letter demanding he push a bill that “terminates all ongoing funding for any federal programs that seek to resettle refugees and/or migrants from Syria into the United States, effective immediately.” He added at a press conference on Monday that “Congress, I think, should defund all the programs that allow all these people to be here. Immediately. Today.” Mike Huckabee, who, like Trump, has been warning about the purported threat of accepting refugees for months, offered similarly pointed instructions for Ryan:

At least one senator, border hawk Jeff Sessions of Alabama, has called for 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.” The chair of the House Freedom Caucus, the several dozen hardliners who effectively hold veto power over Republican legislation, tell a hysterical Breitbart that they’re unsure if Ryan is committed to eliminating funding for Syrian refugee resettlement in the spending battle.

This sucker’s got a hot head of steam on it, and you can see where it’s headed. Congressional conservatives in recent years have sought to use the funding process to “defund” the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s executive actions on immigration, and—this one’s still an open question—Planned Parenthood. Now it seems likely they will demand language in the omnibus spending bill that bars the administration from using federal moneys to resettle Syrian refugees.

One significant variable here is how united Democrats would be against it. A late September survey from Pew showed that 69 percent of Democrats supported the decision to accept more refugees, and each of the three Democratic presidential candidates called for at least the number Obama has thus far offered to accept. We’ll have to see if that position retains such strong support following the Paris attacks. There is, even on the Democratic side, a strain of paranoid NIMBY-ism among lawmakers on these issues. Just last week the Senate voted 91–3 to pass the National Defense Authorization Act, which included “a prohibition on using funds to transfer [Guantanamo] prisoners to the U.S. or to build facilities to house them in the future.” Congressional Democrats have approved such language throughout the Obama presidency. One Democratic governor, New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan, has already said that her state would not accept refugees for the time being. (Hassan is running for Senate against incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte.)

For now, though, it doesn’t seem like Democrats are in much of a rush to block the refugees. When asked whether a provision to “defund” the administration’s acceptance and resettlement of additional Syrian refugees would muster any Democratic support, a senior Democratic House aide told Slate: “Democrats have already drawn a firm line against poison pill riders.” Assuming that firm line doesn’t soften and the Republican insistence on such language continues to gain momentum, Ryan’s December just got trickier.    

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Paris attacks.