WASHINGTON – Democratic U.S. Reps. Tim Walz, Collin Peterson and Rick Nolan joined with a majority of Republicans Thursday in support of a measure to create new obstacles for Syrian and Iraqi refugees trying to enter the United States, offering a stinging rebuke of President Obama.
The White House threatened to veto the Republican-led legislation, though the House passed it by a veto-proof majority, a 289-137 margin, joined by 47 Democrats. The measure will implement additional screening measures on refugees from the two countries seeking entrance into the United States.
Senior White House officials raced to Capitol Hill in the morning ahead of the vote in attempts to assuage potential Democrat defectors — including Nolan, Peterson and Walz — to no avail. The vote was a major blow to the president in the midst of a fierce debate over refugees fleeing the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an issue fresh on the minds of voters after the group claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris that killed 129 people and wounded many more. The attacks intensified doubts about admitting people fleeing war-torn Syria and Iraq, causing many congressional Democrats to defy the president for fear of angering voters nervous about security back home.
“The message from southern Minnesota has been very clear: Our care and compassion for those fleeing terror is absolute, but we have to find a way to ensure that we keep Americans safe from harm,” Walz said in a statement.
Walz and Nolan, who represent the First and Eighth Congressional Districts in southern and northern Minnesota, respectively, said they felt it was more important to assure their constituents that safety was the biggest priority in screening incoming people into the United States.
In a lengthy response that included quotes from Pope Francis, Nolan said he supported the new screening measures because he wanted to be “unwavering” in defending the country.
“We must constantly be examining our intelligence-gathering capabilities and making improvements wherever necessary,” he said. “Everyone who enters the United States from another nation must be carefully screened.”
In recent days, the debate has raged among governors, with many Republican governors saying they will bar refugees from entering their state. Top White House officials convened a conference call with a bipartisan group of governors earlier this week to discuss existing efforts to screen out terrorists who might try to sneak in among those fleeing war-torn countries.
Gov. Mark Dayton said he had no plans to bar Syrian refugees from entering Minnesota, so long as appropriate screening procedures are in place.
Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents St. Paul, was the only Minnesota Democrat who backed the president in voting against the measure.
“These are innocent and vulnerable children, parents and elders who are seeking protection from murderous armies, terrorist groups and death squads,” McCollum said. “The perpetrators of the Paris attack were ISIL radicals with European citizenship, not refugees.”
Minnesota’s three House Republicans, Reps. John Kline, Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer, all supported the measure.
“The United States has a long tradition of welcoming refugees and providing assistance, but we also need to do everything we can to keep Americans safe,” said Kline, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison did not vote Thursday because he flew back to Minneapolis to address ongoing protests in his district after police shot an unarmed man.
Obama administration officials say they continually tweak the refugee program to add additional safety measures.
About 785,000 refugees have been admitted to the country since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Only about a dozen have been deported or arrested due to terrorism concerns.
White House officials say the House-passed bill will do nothing to improve America’s security and will only hamper efforts to “assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world, many of whom are victims of terrorism.”
The measure now heads to the U.S. Senate.
In a floor speech earlier this week, Democratic Sen. Al Franken said despite the terrorist attacks in Paris, the U.S. must uphold its pledge to offer humanitarian assistance. His office said he will not support the House measure.
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s staffers noted in a statement Thursday that she “is committed to the refugee program so long as each refugee goes through a thorough vetting process.”
Allison Sherry • 202-383-6120