The White House accused the Republican-controlled Congress Monday of shirking its responsibility to protect the homeland from terrorists, even as President Obama’s top advisers refused to label terrorism as a bigger national security threat than global warming.
Stung by criticism that Mr. Obama lacks a strategy to defeat the Islamic State, White House officials tried to shame Congress into action on homeland security from Paris, where the president is attending a climate change summit with other world leaders in the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in the city.
“For too long, Capitol Hill has been source of politically motivated posturing, but few if any tangible improvements to our national security,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “That’s wrong. It’s dangerous and falls far short of what the American people deserve.”
White House aides outlined several steps that Mr. Obama wants lawmakers to complete before leaving Washington for the Christmas holiday, including overhauling a program that allows visa-free travel to the U.S. and confirming the languishing nomination of a Treasury Department appointee who would crack down on the financing of terrorist networks.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said the House will aim to pass legislation by year’s end to strengthen the visa waiver program, which lets people from 38 countries visit the U.S. for 90-day stays without obtaining a visa. The administration itself announced steps Monday to tighten the program, which has come under scrutiny following the Paris terror attacks because at least six of the Islamist militants were from countries on the list — five from France and one from Belgium.
Some Republicans also hit back at Mr. Obama for having misplaced priorities, saying the issue of global warming should be taking a back seat to fighting terrorism. Rep. Mike Pompeo, Kansas Republican, said the president is ready “to bow down to radical environmentalists, all the while refusing to stand up to radical Islamists.”
“In this city that has suffered an enormous tragedy at the hands of jihadists, our president stands ready to handcuff the global economy instead of the barbarians that seek to kill Americans, our allies, and others all over the world,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement.
An aide to Speaker Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said Congress has taken action such as delaying Mr. Obama’s plan to accept 10,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq in 2016, while pushing the president to devise a clear counterterror strategy.
“The House passed a bipartisan bill that would protect Americans from terrorists and the White House immediately issued a veto threat,” said Ryan spokesman Doug Andres. “Even worse, it’s clear that the Obama administration lacks a plan to defeat [the Islamic State].”
Mr. Andres said that’s why the new National Defense Authorization Act, which the president signed into law last week, “requires him to come up with a real, comprehensive plan to combat this threat.”
White House aides repeatedly declined to characterize terrorism as a more serious national security threat than climate change. Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said “they’re both critically important, and we have to do both at the same time, and they pose different threats.”
“Obviously, there is an immediate threat from terrorism that has to be dealt with to protect the American people, to protect our allies and partners,” Mr. Rhodes said. “Over the long term, clearly, we see the potential for climate change to pose severe risks to the entire world.”
He said global warming could exacerbate terrorism by causing political instability in parts of Africa and the Middle East where extremism is already a problem.
On the sidelines of the climate change summit, Mr. Obama met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and expressed “regret” for the death of a Russian fighter pilot whose plane was shot down by Turkey last week near the border with Syria.
The White House said the two leaders discussed diplomatic efforts to reach a cease-fire and political resolution to Syria’s civil war, which has enabled the Islamic State to establish a safe haven in Syrian territory.
Mr. Obama again told Mr. Putin, whose military is backing Syrian President Bashar Assad, that Mr. Assad must give up power in a political transition, and that Russian forces must focus their fire against the Islamic State militants instead of targeting moderate Syrian opposition groups backed by the U.S. A spokesman for the Kremlin said both leaders spoke in favor of a political settlement in Syria, and called the talks “eventful.”
With the Paris attacks intensifying criticism of Mr. Obama’s handling of terrorism, the White House tried to turn the tables by accusing lawmakers of “posturing” over security — a reference to the strong bipartisan House vote last week to delay Mr. Obama’s refugee program for Syrians and Iraqis. Mr. Earnest outlined several steps that the administration is taking in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks on Nov. 13 and called on lawmakers to act on four security proposals before leaving Washington next month.
“We are clear-eyed about the stakes,” Mr. Earnest said. “Now it’s time for Congress to do the same. It’s time for Congress to fulfill their commitment to keep the country safe.”
The White House is calling on lawmakers to approve legislation to strengthen the visa waiver program and announced it was taking its own steps administratively Monday to bolster the program’s security.
Mr. Earnest also urged Congress to approve the president’s budget request for aviation security, approve the stalled nomination of Treasury Department nominee Adam Szubin and pass a ban on gun ownership by people who are on the government’s terrorism no-fly watch list.
“If it’s too dangerous for you to board a plane, then you shouldn’t be able to buy a gun,” Mr. Earnest said.
Among the steps announced Monday, the Department of Homeland Security will modify its electronic system for authorizing travel applications to capture information from visa-waiver travelers regarding any “past travel to countries constituting a terrorist safe haven,” the White House said. The Director of National Intelligence will regularly review those countries to assess travel risk.
The administration said it will also look at pilot programs using biometrics to bolster security; and identify countries that are “deficient” in cooperating with the program.
The FBI will evaluate terrorism-information sharing with other countries in the visa waiver program and report to the president within 60 days on ways to “mitigate any deficiencies.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence committee, said the moves by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson “will put the appropriate focus on screening travelers to the United States, not on shutting our doors to refugees.”
“Unlike the refugee program which requires a lengthy vetting period often lasting years, most Europeans may enter the U.S. without even a visa,” Mr. Schiff said. “Given the large number of European citizens who are returning to countries like France and Belgium after joining [the Islamic State], we must take every precaution to protect against foreign fighters who might seek to exploit the Visa Waiver Program to illicitly enter the United States.”