A shameful "tough on terror" rewind: The familiar politics of the GOP's awful refugee bill

Four dozen House Democrats help the GOP turn back the clock on cynical national security politics

Published November 20, 2015 6:04PM (EST)

Paul Ryan (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Paul Ryan (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Refugee panic is now officially the political wedge issue Republicans hoped it would be. Yesterday, Paul Ryan and the House GOP put forward a bill that would require the FBI director, the secretary of Homeland Security, and the director of national intelligence to personally certify that each individual Syrian refugee seeking to resettle in the United States does not pose a threat to national security. The legislation sailed through to passage with a veto-proof 289 votes, including 47 Democrats who voted aye in defiance of the White House and the leading Democratic presidential candidates.

The practical effect of the legislation would be to add further delays to what is already a drawn-out process of intense background checks and security screening. It can take up to 24 months for an applicant to reach the end of the vetting process. Rep. Zoe Lofgren argues that the House bill would effectively shut down the program for two years. The White House called the measure an unnecessary obstacle to providing humanitarian relief to a highly vulnerable population, and President Obama has promised to veto it should it reach his desk.

In spite of all this, 47 Democrats lined up with the Republicans to thump their chests about the threat of terrorism. As Digby rightly observes, this whole shameful episode represented a winding back of the clock on national security politics to the bad old days of the early 2000s, when the GOP achieved great success in leveraging the threat of terrorism to cow Democrats into siding with them on every "war on terror" policy out of fear that they’d appear “weak” on national security. And make no mistake: the vote on the refugee bill was entirely about politics.

Republicans in Congress claim the legislation is designed to strengthen the already rigorous vetting process for Syrian refugees, but they can’t explain why exactly they think this extra layer of screening is necessary. What they do know, however, is that the public panic they’ve helped to build over the refugee program presents a political opportunity. “When pressed, most Republicans could not specify which aspects of the rigorous refugee vetting program that they found inadequate,” the New York Times reported. “Ryan’s staff members cited a Bloomberg poll… that found that 53 percent of those surveyed said the resettlement program should be halted.”

If you’re still harboring any doubts as to the true purpose of the House bill, consider this charming report from The Hill:

House Republican leaders expect the bill to receive yes votes from as many as 50 Democrats in the lower chamber.

They warned Democrats will pay the price politically next year if they block it.

“We’ll crucify them,” said a senior House GOP aide.

Lovely! The legislation will, in all likelihood, be blocked by Senate Democrats, who are working with the White House to try and redirect attention away from the refugee program by proposing changes to the visa waiver program. Republicans are being a little overly optimistic, I think, in believing that this issue will have any real potency a year from now, but for the moment they can have their fun making the argument that spineless, weak-on-terror Democrats opposed a BISPARTISAN measure to protect the country from the potential threat posed by terrified and desperate people who want nothing more than to live in America.

It’s the sort of absurd and grossly cynical exploitation of public anxiety over terrorism that the Republicans of ten years ago used to strengthen their political grip on national security issues, and it has a misleading sheen of credibility thanks to the four dozen Democrats who voted in favor of this awful bill.

By Simon Maloy

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