Architect of the Capitol

Senate to Vote on Limiting Syrian Refugees

The chamber is set to tackle a hot-button bill that already passed the House.

Fol­low­ing a three-day Re­pub­lic­an re­treat in Bal­timore last week in which the House pitched big ideas and com­plained about the slow pace of pro­gress in the Sen­ate, sen­at­ors will re­turn alone to Wash­ing­ton on Tues­day to take up one of the bills their House col­leagues passed last Novem­ber.

The Sen­ate will vote Tues­day night to open de­bate on a House-passed bill lim­it­ing the im­mig­ra­tion of Syr­i­an refugees to the United States, amid sim­mer­ing con­cerns about the threat of po­ten­tial ter­ror at­tacks.

The bill, which passed the House in Novem­ber on a veto-proof vote of 289-137, came on the heels of the ter­ror at­tack in Par­is, in which at least one Syr­i­an refugee stands ac­cused, but be­fore the at­tacks in San Bern­ardino, Cali­for­nia, that killed 14 in early Decem­ber.

But al­though the bill garnered the sup­port of 47 Demo­crats in the House, it faces a fili­buster threat from the minor­ity party in the Sen­ate. At least six Demo­crats would be needed to ad­vance the le­gis­la­tion, along with all 55 Re­pub­lic­ans. (In the House, just two Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who said the meas­ure did not go far enough, op­posed the bill last Novem­ber.)

The Amer­ic­an SAFE Act, as the House dubbed the le­gis­la­tion, would re­quire both the FBI and the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cur­ity to run back­ground checks cer­ti­fy­ing that any refugee from Syr­ia or Ir­aq—or those who have vis­ited either coun­try since March 2011—is not “a threat to the se­cur­ity of the United States” be­fore en­ter­ing the coun­try. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, which op­poses the meas­ure, has said that the level of screen­ings Con­gress is ask­ing for, par­tic­u­larly in the case of Syr­i­an refugees, would be nearly im­possible to con­duct.

The is­sue has be­come a fo­cus in the race for the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion and could make waves—or least cam­paign ads—for the three can­did­ates cur­rently resid­ing in the Sen­ate.

Sen. Ted Cruz, who in­tro­duced his own le­gis­la­tion to re­strict refugees from Syr­ia from en­ter­ing the coun­try last year, raised the is­sue at last Thursday’s de­bate, cri­ti­ciz­ing Sen. Marco Ru­bio for op­pos­ing a much stricter meas­ure last year. That bill, sponsored by fel­low pres­id­en­tial con­tender Rand Paul, would have tem­por­ar­ily hal­ted im­mig­ra­tion of any in­di­vidu­als from 33 coun­tries, largely in the Middle East, that are con­sidered “high-risk,” and re­quired in­di­vidu­als from any oth­er coun­try to wait 30 days be­fore en­ter­ing the U.S. to al­low for ad­di­tion­al screen­ings.

The Paul amend­ment, which he at­tached to the Sen­ate’s Af­ford­able Care Act re­peal bill in Decem­ber, failed 10-89.

Mean­while, in the wake of the cap­ture of 10 Amer­ic­an Navy sail­ors in Ir­an last week, and their sub­sequent re­lease 16 hours later, the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee will hold a full pan­el hear­ing Wed­nes­day to re­view the Ir­an deal’s ef­fects on the Middle East. Last week’s de­ten­tion has raised con­gres­sion­al in­terest in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s deal, which was already the sub­ject of cri­ti­cism from Re­pub­lic­an and some Demo­crat­ic mem­bers.

Here’s what else is on tap this week:


As the Sen­ate pre­pares to po­ten­tially take up a broad en­ergy bill from its mem­bers, the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee holds a hear­ing Tues­day to get guid­ance from en­ergy-policy ana­lysts on the near-term out­look for en­ergy and com­mod­ity mar­kets. The hear­ing will in­clude testi­mony from En­ergy In­form­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion head Adam Siem­in­ski.

The Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day will mark up re­vi­sions to the Bi­par­tis­an Sports­men’s Act, a meas­ure that in­cludes sev­er­al pub­lic-lands and con­ser­va­tion meas­ures along with bills re­lated to hunt­ing and fish­ing. The com­mit­tee will also vote on bills re­lated to con­ser­va­tion of the Great Lakes and Long Is­land Sound. 

Fresh off of an­noun­cing new policies to foster driver­less vehicles, Na­tion­al High­way Traffic Safety Ad­min­is­trat­or Mark Rose­kind will speak Thursday at the open­ing day of the Wash­ing­ton Auto Show, where car­makers will show off their autonom­ous and clean-fuel mod­els. New auto­mot­ive tech­no­logy will also be the fo­cus of a con­gres­sion­al brief­ing on Wed­nes­day and a hear­ing on Thursday in the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee. 


Ad­dress­ing men­tal health is one of Chair­man Lamar Al­ex­an­der’s main pri­or­it­ies for the Sen­ate Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee. And that’s what the pan­el will dis­cuss on Wed­nes­day at a hear­ing titled, “Im­prov­ing the Fed­er­al Re­sponse to Chal­lenges in Men­tal Health Care in Amer­ica.”

Pro­pos­als ad­dress­ing men­tal health have already cropped up in the up­per cham­ber this ses­sion, such as one from HELP pan­el mem­bers Bill Cas­sidy and Chris Murphy and an­oth­er from Sen. John Cornyn, whose bill will be dis­cussed at a Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee hear­ing Jan. 26. The HELP Com­mit­tee’s top Demo­crat, Sen. Patty Mur­ray, and Al­ex­an­der are work­ing on pro­pos­als of their own, which could be merged with their col­leagues’ le­gis­la­tion.

On Thursday, the Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee will bring in Andy Slavitt, Cen­ters for Medi­care and Medi­caid Ser­vices act­ing ad­min­is­trat­or, to re­view health care co-ops’ fin­an­cial and over­sight con­trols. Last year, co-ops came un­der fire as some states shuttered their pro­grams, which were ori­gin­ally in­cluded in the law to help lower premi­ums on the ex­changes and in­crease com­pet­i­tion.


The Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee will gath­er Wed­nes­day for a hear­ing on “The Ad­equacy of Crim­in­al In­tent Stand­ards in Fed­er­al Pro­sec­u­tions.” The hear­ing will ex­plore a di­vis­ive is­sue in the bi­par­tis­an push to re­form the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem: wheth­er to ex­pand re­quire­ments that pro­sec­utors show de­fend­ants knew their be­ha­vi­or was il­leg­al.

Some law­makers say the na­tion’s large ar­ray of crim­in­al laws mean that com­pan­ies and people can eas­ily run afoul of the law without any crim­in­al in­tent. But crit­ics of tough­en­ing re­quire­ments to show “mens rea” (or “guilty mind”) say it could sty­mie pro­sec­u­tion of white-col­lar crimes that en­danger food safety, en­vir­on­ment­al and work­er pro­tec­tions, and more.

The com­mit­tee already cleared a broad bill last fall that would ease harsh man­dat­ory-min­im­um sen­tences for cer­tain drug of­fend­ers, and en­able some pris­on­ers to shorten their sen­tences by tak­ing part in pro­grams aimed at re­du­cing their like­li­hood of re-of­fend­ing.


Much of Pres­id­ent Obama’s week is de­voted to urb­an policies, but it be­gins with a fo­cus on for­eign policy Tues­day when Aus­trali­an Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull meets with the pres­id­ent. Turn­bull took of­fice last Septem­ber. On Wed­nes­day, it’s off to De­troit to cel­eb­rate the re­birth of the do­mest­ic auto in­dustry by at­tend­ing the North Amer­ic­an In­ter­na­tion­al Auto Show. Thursday will have more talk about is­sues im­port­ant to cit­ies like De­troit when the pres­id­ent speaks to the U.S. Con­fer­ence of May­ors and takes ques­tions. Then, on Fri­day, Obama will preside over the Na­tion­al Medals of Sci­ence/Tech­no­logy and In­nov­a­tion ce­re­mony at the White House.

Jason PlautzRachel RoubeinBen Geman and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.