House Passes Bill Calling for Tougher Refugee Screening

PHOTO: House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., gestures during his news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington.PlayPablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
WATCH House Passes Bill Calling for Tougher Refugee Screening

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill today to beef up security screening for Syrian refugees coming to the United States, with many Democrats going against the Obama administration to pass the Republican-authored bill with a veto-proof majority.

The proposed legislation, which passed 289-137, would require top national security officials to certify that each refugee is not a security threat and require monthly reports on the admissions and screening process to Congress.

The bill now heads to the Senate where its fate is less clear.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the author of the bill and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the bill would require the heads of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence to “put their names on the line,” going on record as approving the security of each refugee that enters the country.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi took to the floor shortly before the vote in an appeal to members to vote against the Republican measure.

She said the bill “fails to meet our values” and “slams the door” on refugees. She also criticized Republican leaders for not taking up a bill drafted by Rep. Peter King (R-NY) that would prevent individuals on the terrorist watch list from legally purchasing firearms, which is not prohibited under current law.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and White House Chief-of-Staff Denis McDonough met with House Democrats Thursday morning about the bill and the refugee vetting process.

Senior administration officials say refugee screening is among the most rigorous--including biometric testing and intensive overseas interviews with DHS experts.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Virginia, who voted for the bill, said the administration did not make a strong enough case for why members should vote against the measure.

"I walked in [to the meeting] generally a no, probably a no, and I left a decided yes," he said. "It didn't persuade, it had the opposite effect, on a number of us."

Senate Democrats suggested that the House bill would not get the same support from their caucus.

“The problem is not the refugees,” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid told reporters.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat who earlier this week said he’d be open to a pause in the refugee program, also said that he was no longer open to that proposition, saying he changed his mind after hearing from administration officials in a closed-door briefing Wednesday night.

“No, I think the appropriate place to focus is the visa waiver program and the ability of terrorists to buy guns,” he said.

Schumer was one of the few Senate Democrats to voice any support for the idea of a temporary suspension of the Syrian refugee resettlement program, which was proposed earlier this week by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Senate Democrats have proposed a bill to beef up security in the visa waiver program, which allows individuals from 38 countries, including most of western Europe, to come to the United States without a visa. That bill has at least one Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)

The drama unfolded on Capitol Hill Thursday as eight Syrian refugees turned themselves in to immigration authorities at a port of entry on U.S. - Mexico border at Laredo, Texas, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The two families of refugees walked up to the border in Laredo at a location where passports are checked, and presented their Syrian passports to the Customs agent, according to officials.

Serena Marshall and Geneva Sands contributed to this report.