- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Tuesday to stop foreigners who’ve recently visited Syria or Iraq from traveling to the U.S. on a visa waiver, signaling Congress’s next likely target as it tries to take steps to reduce the chances of a Paris-style terrorist attack.

Led by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, the new bill would also require travelers using the Visa Waiver Program to submit biometric data before being able to travel, and would push other countries to have air marshals on their flights.

The large bipartisan group of supporters gives the bill a good chance of passing, should Republican leaders give it floor time.

“As growing numbers of foreign nationals travel to the Middle East to train and fight, and with 45 million lost and stolen passports on the black market, we must do all we can to secure the program,” Mrs. Feinstein said.

Terrorists identified in the Paris attack held Belgian and French passports, and both of those countries are part of the U.S.’s Visa Waiver Program, which allows travelers from 38 other nations to enter the U.S. without having to get a visa or undergo the in-person interview that is designed to weed out potential problem visitors.

All sides say the waiver program is a vulnerability, and even President Obama, who on many other issues has been content to go it alone and tell Congress to butt out, has invited lawmakers to step in and act.

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Nearly 20 million visitors entered the U.S. under the waiver program in 2013. The program relies on other countries’ data in order to screen out questionable visitors, and part of the new Flake-Feinstein bill would require more information-sharing from the 38 countries who have been granted waivers.

The U.S. Travel Association, an industry lobby, said the legislation has some good points, but cautioned there were still plenty of questions, including when the travelers would have to turn over their fingerprints — at U.S. consulates ahead of time, or at airports when they’re preparing to fly out.

“If it’s the former, how will they accommodate the boost in demand? If it’s the latter, does that entail stations at every single airport that flies to the U.S.? In that case, the bill could theoretically necessitate the costly installation of systems at hundreds of overseas airports,” the association said.

The House earlier this year passed a bill that would give Homeland Security the power to suspend countries from the Visa Waiver Program if they don’t share enough data on their travelers, and requires Homeland Security to weigh terrorism risks when deciding whether to admit a visa waiver visitor.

U.S. Travel said it preferred that approach to the Senate’s bill.

Meanwhile, the House has already passed a bill to restrict Mr. Obama’s plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. That bill would insist the president’s Homeland Security, intelligence and FBI chiefs each certify every refugee has been vetted to screen out would-be terrorists.

Democratic leaders have argued that rather than imposing more checks on refugees, Republicans should crack down on gun rights. They tried a parliamentary maneuver Tuesday to force a vote on a bill that would prohibit persons listed on the FBI’s terrorist watch list from buying firearms. The maneuver failed.

Mr. Obama has threatened to veto that bill and Senate Republican leaders haven’t brought it for a vote in their chamber, instead saying they’ll try to tackle the issue as part of the year-end spending debate.

In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan said the Visa Waiver Program is a likely target for action.

Some in the GOP want to go further than the Feinstein-Flake bill, saying all visitors from nations with heavy terrorist activity should be suspended from the waiver program.

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