In a stinging rebuke to President Obama by Republicans and Democrats, the House ignored a veto threat Thursday and overwhelmingly approved GOP legislation erecting fresh hurdles for Syrian and Iraqi refugees trying to enter the United States.
Forty-seven Democrats joined all but two Republicans as the House passed the measure by a veto-proof 289-137 margin, a major setback to the lame duck president on an issue —the Islamic State group and the refugees fleeing it — that shows no signs of easing. The vote exceeded the two-thirds majority required to override a veto, and came despite a rushed, early morning visit to the Capitol by senior administration officials in a futile attempt to limit Democratic defections.
Thursday's roll call 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.
"Defeating terrorism should not mean slamming the door in the faces of those fleeing the terrorists. We might as well take down the Statue of Liberty," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
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.
The 47 Democrats who backed the bill, largely moderates and lawmakers facing potentially tough re-elections, were joined by 242 Republicans. Voting no were 135 Democrats and two Republicans, North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones and Iowa Rep. Steve King.
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.
Freshman Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb., who faces a tough re-election fight next year, called the Paris attacks "a game changer" and supported the bill, saying, "I cannot sit back and ignore the concerns of my constituents and the American public."
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."
On the campaign trail, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. should welcome refugees from the region and bolster America's defenses and intelligence operations.
On the Senate floor, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who hasn't yet scheduled debate on the issue, said Thursday it is time "to press pause" so policy makers could decide whether adequate vetting procedures are in place, calling it "the most responsible thing for the administration to do."
Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he's been disgusted by the comments from Republicans he labeled "fear-mongering and bigotry."
In a statement assuring a veto, the White House said the GOP bill would not improve Americans' security. It said the legislation "would unacceptably hamper our efforts to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world, many of whom are victims of terrorism, and would undermine our partners in the Middle East and Europe in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis."
The 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.