Syrian Refugee Dispute Raises Prospects for December Shutdown

Refugees, such as these who await police processing in Serbia, have been fleeing the Middle East and streaming into Europe by the tens of thousands. Refugees, such as these who await police processing in Serbia, have been fleeing the Middle East and streaming into Europe by the tens of thousands. Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, scores of politicians from around the country have called for an end to the U.S. program for accepting refugees from Syria. And dozens of lawmakers want to defund the program through the forthcoming fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill, setting the stage for a budget showdown that could force another government shutdown. The resettlement program has so far allowed about 2,000 Syrians to move to the United States.

Nearly 60 Republican House members signed a letter authored by Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, supporting that strategy. The letter to the House leadership, including Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., asked for language to be included in the upcoming spending bill to “restore congressional oversight and authority over the refugee program.” The proposed provision would cut off any federal funding for refugee travel or resettlement until Congress authorized it.

“There is no duty of the federal government more important than ensuring the protection of the American people,” Babin wrote. “We believe that we would fall short of that duty if the Congress fails to exercise greater authority over the administration’s refugee resettlement program.”

The administration, however, has defended its screening of refugees, and President Obama would likely refuse to sign a bill that contained such language. While leaders of the FBI and Homeland Security Department have admitted there are some difficulties in vetting refugees from civil war-torn Syria, the White House published a blog post on Tuesday spelling out all the steps federal agencies take to ensure that bad actors aren’t admitted to the United States.

Additionally, congressional Democrats have vowed to stand against any “poison pill” riders to legislation funding federal agencies past Dec. 11, when current appropriations are set to expire. The minority party’s ability to block such provisions from advancing in the Senate has not deterred some of the chamber’s Republicans, who also have pointed to the spending bill as a vehicle for preventing the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

Two Republican senators from Alabama -- Richard Shelby, who chairs a subcommittee on the Senate appropriations panel, and Jeff Sessions, who leads a subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest -- called it “essential” that any government spending bill “cancel the president’s blank check for refugee resettlement.” They added the program “runs on autopilot” and said any omnibus spending bill should make it “absolutely clear” that no resettlement will take place without separate authorization from Congress.

The senators noted that because the program requires funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement and through other parts of the budget, Congress can block President Obama’s plan. Obama has called for the United States to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has said, “We are considering all of our options,” including attaching a rider to the omnibus bill. In the more immediate term, however, the House will vote this week on a measure to require DHS, in consultation with other federal agencies, to certify no Syrian refugees pose a security risk and for the department’s inspector to audit a portion of the screenings. Opponents to the bill have complained that changing the screening process midstream would immediately shut down all refugee resettlement for up to several years.

Even if Congress is able to deal with the refugee issue outside of the funding context, concerns over a shutdown remain.

“There will have to be some riders in this for us to be able to pass it through Congress,” Ryan told The Wall Street Journal Tuesday evening. The newly elected speaker would not rule out a shutdown as part of an effort to advance provisions such as defunding Planned Parenthood, blocking the president from transferring detainees out of the Guantanamo prison facility or other executive actions.  

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