House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) yesterday moved to head off what could be an early major hurdle to his leadership by separating omnibus negotiations to prevent a government shutdown from GOP opposition to the president’s welcoming of Syrian refugees.
Asked whether he would turn to the omnibus to address the refugee issue, Ryan responded, "We don’t want to wait that long. We want to — we want to work and act on this faster than that."
Top Democrats in the Senate appeared to back the new House leader.
"I think Speaker Ryan has the right idea," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters on Capitol Hill. "He’s said he’s going to leave any refugee legislation separate and apart from the omnibus."
Ryan is facing pressure from Republicans following terrorist attacks in Paris to scuttle the president’s plan to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States. Republicans including Alabama Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby called on Senate appropriators this week to place conditions on any spending bill that includes funds for refugee resettlement.
But Ryan signaled yesterday he would keep the issues separate. Ryan told reporters that while the United States needs to accept refugees, there needs to be more oversight to ensure terrorists aren’t infiltrating their ranks. He also said he had assembled a task force to begin consideration of a bill to deal with the refugee crisis.
"Our nation has always been welcoming. But we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion," Ryan said. "This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than to be sorry. So we think the prudent, the responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program, in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population."
For his part, Sessions has rejected the notion that his efforts to restrict refugee resettlement funding would upset the appropriations process. "Congress would fund the government, Congress wouldn’t shut down," Sessions said. "Obviously we’ll see what the appropriations decide on that."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appeared to leave the door open yesterday to attaching language halting the president’s Syrian refuge program to the omnibus bill. McConnell said he had spoken with Ryan the day before and is keeping dialogue open with the Obama administration.
"We’re talking to the White House, we’ll see what they’re open to," McConnell said. "There’s certainly a possibility it could become part of legislation, I understand the House may vote on a freestanding measure along these lines."
Governors, he added, are alarmed at their inability to legally halt the president’s vow to take in 10,000 refugees. McConnell said the fear is bipartisan, noting that New Hampshire Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan has called for a stop to resettlement until the vetting process for refugees has been thoroughly reviewed.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told E&E Daily yesterday the administration should hold off on plans to bring Syrian refugees to the United States until security concerns are addressed.
"Develop a vetting process that works," he said. "Right now, there should be a pause."
Should the administration proceed anyway, he said that it’s appropriate for Congress to respond with legislation but that he "would rather" it not be part of the omnibus. "Much rather," McCain added.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said yesterday that members of both parties should work together to address safety concerns associated with refugees but sidestepped a question over whether the issue is worth risking a government shutdown.
"Let’s make sure we keep people safe," he said, adding there’s discussions among members of both parties on the matter.
Democrats are also taking a look at whether the vetting process of refugees could be improved, said Reid. But when asked whether the president’s program should be paused, Reid said Democrats would announce their strategy today.
Reid, who has railed against Republicans for including "poison pills" in spending bills, was also mum on which policy riders have surfaced as the most problematic. Reid said that he spoke yesterday with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and that subcommittees are making progress.
"On riders, we’re just beginning the process, so there’s no ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on anything at this point," Reid said.
Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) is pushing House leaders to include legislation to amend U.S. EPA’s new coal ash disposal rule in either an omnibus bill or another vehicle. "We’re having conversations with them about that," he said yesterday.
Sources say pro-coal lawmakers are also pushing for the inclusion of a rider to block the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s proposed stream protection rule.
Reporter Manuel Quiñones contributed.