Distrust with President Obama’s approach to terrorism boiled over Thursday as a bipartisan House voted overwhelmingly to “pause” his plans to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. this year.
Nearly four dozen Democrats joined Republicans to defy a White House veto threat and pass the bill, which siphons final decision-making powers over refugee admissions from Mr. Obama’s control and instead requires the chiefs of the FBI, Homeland Security and national intelligence — all congressionally confirmed positions — to personally vouch for each refugee.
The vote proved an embarrassment for Mr. Obama. While traveling in Asia, he exhorted Capitol Hill to “settle down” and accused lawmakers of being anti-Muslim and lacking compassion. But he appeared to have overstepped, as even many Democrats called the modest restrictions reasonable precautions to try to keep terrorists from exploiting U.S. generosity.
Mr. Obama had made a full press to try to avert the vote, sending Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and other top officials to meet with lawmakers. But a growing trust gap, fueled by the president’s go-it-alone approach on immigration and his botched handling of the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks, left him without much leverage.
“The American public has very little faith in this administration,” Rep. Ken Buck, Colorado Republican, told administration officials who were on Capitol Hill to try to sway lawmakers just ahead of the vote.
The bill itself does not stop the refugee program but requires tougher checks. The administration, however, says it cannot certify the validity of each refugee and will halt the program on its own.
Thursday’s vote was 289-137, with 47 Democrats joining almost all Republicans. It also represents a two-thirds majority, which signals that there is a good chance the chamber would overturn Mr. Obama’s veto if it gets to that point. The bill still needs to clear the Senate, where Republican leaders have not signaled what they will do.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, insisted she would do better next time after dozens of her troops defected despite her efforts to rally for Mr. Obama.
“I am confident that in the unlikely scenario that this bill comes back to the House, we would sustain a presidential veto,” she said in a statement.
Immigrant rights groups said they will try to stiffen Democrats’ spines in the Senate, where they hope a filibuster would thwart any attempts to rein in Mr. Obama’s refugee plans. Indeed, the groups called on the president to accept up to 100,000 Syrian refugees this year — 10 times the 10,000 he has allowed.
The refugee program was controversial from the moment Mr. Obama announced his goal, but opposition hit new heights after last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris. One suicide bomber was thought to have arrived in Greece as a Syrian refugee using a false passport, then made his way through Europe to France.
Obama administration officials say they are confident that they can make good decisions about whom to admit into the U.S. but acknowledge there are “gaps” in information about Syrians because the U.S. doesn’t have access to databases there, nor does it have resources on the ground in the war-torn country that would help verify refugees’ backgrounds.
Nearly 2,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled over the past two years despite those gaps. Of those, about half are children and a quarter are elderly. Single men of “combat” age account for only about 2 percent of Syrians admitted, officials said this week.
Mr. Obama, who has had a strained relationship with Congress for much of his tenure, has become increasingly strident in his criticism and fired barbs at each stop on a trip through Asia this week.
At a summit in the Philippines on Thursday, Mr. Obama said the refugees were no different from any other visitor the U.S. might admit.
“The idea that somehow they pose a more significant threat than all the tourists who pour into the United States every single day just doesn’t jibe with reality,” Mr. Obama said. “So my expectation is, after the initial spasm of rhetoric, the people will settle down, take a look at the facts, and we’ll be able to proceed.”
He previously accused opponents of anti-Muslim sentiment, but the number of Democrats who broke with him could force him to cool his rhetoric.
For Republican leaders, the vote Thursday was just a first step. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said the legislation had to be expedited to force a temporary halt to more refugees, but he added that his top security lieutenants were looking at other measures.
“This plan pauses the program. It’s a security test, not a religious test,” Mr. Ryan said. “This reflects our values. This reflects our responsibilities. And this is urgent. We cannot and should not wait to act, not when our national security is at stake.”
More than 30 governors — almost all of them Republicans — have said they will try to resist having any refugees settled in their states. Some members of Congress want to go further and give governors veto power over refugees sent to their jurisdictions.
Some Republicans have called for a full stop to all Syrian refugees, while others have proposed shifting the program to place greater emphasis on Christians, who are facing particularly severe persecution.
⦁ Dave Boyer contributed to this report.