- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Brushing aside new fears of terrorists exploiting the refugee program, Senate Democrats on Wednesday successfully defended President Obama’s plans to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, saying the U.S. cannot turn its back on its obligation to help the needy.

Republicans had hoped to put the brakes on Mr. Obama’s plans by asking that the chiefs of Homeland Security, intelligence and the FBI sign off on each refugee — a way of making sure all the right security checks are done.

But Democrats mounted a filibuster to block the legislation, leaving Mr. Obama a free hand to run the refugee program as he sees fit.

“Women, children and families fleeing persecution are not the enemy,” said Minority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who led the opposition. “We should be focusing all our effort on defeating the real enemy.”

Republicans fell five votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster, winning support from just two Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

That marked a stunning turnaround from late last year, when the same bill cleared the House with strong bipartisan support, drawing a two-thirds majority — enough to override a presidential veto.

“By blocking this measure, Senate Democrats are making it that much harder for us to keep Americans safe,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said in a statement after the vote. “Even the administration’s top law-enforcement officials say there are gaps in our refugee program that terrorists can exploit.”

Mr. Obama has insisted his current program is capable of weeding out potential terrorists from the pool of potential refugees, and pointed to the Iraqi refugee program, which has admitted thousands of Iraqis over the last decade.

Defenders say it takes years to clear the program, and that makes it an unlikely target for Islamic State or other terrorists hoping to sneak operatives into the U.S.

But the program suffered a black eye earlier this year after the Justice Department announced terrorism-related charges against two Iraqis, signaling that the vetting may not be as airtight as defenders said.

Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan, 25, a Palestinian born in Iraq, has been charged with attempting to provide support for the Islamic State and lying to Homeland Security officers when he applied for citizenship in the U.S. Government informants said he trained as a machine-gunner with the Islamic State, and was trying to build bombs in his Texas home, with plans to attack two shopping malls.

In the other case, investigators said Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, 23, traveled to Syria and fought with Ansar al-Islam against the Syrian regime, according to charges brought in federal court in California. He then lied about the travel to Syria, prosecutors say.

Mr. Al-Jayab’s case is particularly worrying since he was admitted in October 2012 as a refugee from Syria.

Vetting Syrian immigrants is even tougher than vetting Iraqis, security experts said, because at least in Iraq, the U.S. has a partnership with the government, has personnel on the ground and access to databases to review backgrounds. In Syria the U.S. lacks all of those tools, meaning it may have to make judgments based on partial information.

Republicans insisted their bill wasn’t intended to shut down the refugee program, but rather to make certain those coming in were subjected to the highest level of scrutiny.

“Why are Senate Democrats and President Obama so opposed to requiring comprehensive background checks of every refugee from Iraq or Syria before they can be admitted into the United States?” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican. “What do they have to hide from the American people by not even allowing this important and popular bill to be debated and voted on the floor of the Senate?”

But Obama administration officials said the intelligence, FBI and Homeland Security chiefs would never sign off on each refugee, meaning the program would be sharply curtailed if the bipartisan bill had passed.

Democratic leaders in the Senate were not only opposed to the bill, but objected to the process as well. They’d sought assurances from Senate Republicans that they could turn the refugee debate into bigger battles over whether to forbid gun sales to those on the FBI’s secret watch lists, and to force votes on some of GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s controversial proposals.

Mr. Reid said he couldn’t get those assurances from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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