WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans pushed legislation toward House approval Thursday erecting fresh hurdles for Syrian and Iraqi refugees trying to enter the United States. President Barack Obama promised a veto, but the White House struggled to limit Democratic defections as last week's attacks in Paris sparked a political struggle in Congress.
With the House's 246 Republicans expected to solidly support the legislation, the administration was eager to keep the final tally for the bill below 270 — the number required to override a veto.
House Democratic aides said they worried that 60 or more Democrats would abandon the lame-duck president and support the legislation out of concerns about how voters might interpret a vote against making it harder for Syrians to come to the U.S.
The White House sent chief of staff Denis McDonough and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to meet with House Democrats early Thursday. But aides said that Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., had a forceful exchange with Johnson, saying that opposition to the bill would be a terrible vote for Democrats that could cost them seats in next year's elections.
On the House floor, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., attacked the bill as a measure that would shut down the admittance of all Syrians and Iraqis fleeing war-torn countries for the U.S.
"The fear, the anger, the prejudice and the isolationism that are driving the current debate on Syrian refugees remind me of some of the darkest and ugliest chapters of American history," said McGovern, a reference to U.S. moves to bar some fleeing Hitler before World War II.
"This appeals to the worst in the United States, protecting America?" responded Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga. "This is a clear choice. The bill is protection, or not."
Though most Democrats were expected to oppose the measure, the 15-member Blue Dog Coalition of moderate Democrats said it would support the legislation.
Many Democrats were eager to offer an alternative of their own. Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, top Democrat on the Homeland Security panel, and other Democrats were proposing a measure blocking admission for any refugees the government finds have not fully established their identities.
The bill was being debated less than a week after a burst of bombings and shootings killed 129 people in Paris, wounded many more and revived post-9/11 jitters in the U.S. and other countries. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the massacres.
The measure would require the FBI to conduct background checks on Syrian and Iraqi refugees. It would oblige the heads of the FBI and Homeland Security Department and the director of national intelligence to certify to Congress that each refugee "is not a threat to the security of the United States."
Republicans said the bill contained no religious tests for the refugees — a split from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, GOP presidential contenders who have suggested giving preferences to Christians. Democrats said the measure in effect targeted Muslims, who comprise the majority of Iraqis and Syrians.
In a statement assuring a veto, the White House said the GOP bill would not improve Americans' security. It said the legislation "would unacceptably hamper our efforts to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world, many of whom are victims of terrorism, and would undermine our partners in the Middle East and Europe in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis."
Currently, the refugee screening process typically takes 18 to 24 months and includes interviews, fingerprinting and database crosschecks by several federal agencies. Syrians undergo additional screening involving data from the U.N. Refugee Agency and interviews by Homeland Security Department officials trained to question Syrians.
Republicans said that with Islamic State militants openly threatening to attack the U.S. in a recent video, that system isn't sufficient to ensure Americans that refugees entering the United States aren't extremists bent on attacking the country.
"The status quo is not acceptable," said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who wrote the bill with Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C. "The American people want us to act in light of what's happened."
Several conservative Republicans said they'd support the House GOP bill but called it symbolic since Republicans lack the votes needed to override an Obama veto. Many of them are considering pushing the issue in a massive spending bill due by Dec. 11 — a measure that if vetoed would lead to a government shutdown.
The Obama administration wants to increase the 70,000 refugees to be admitted from around the world this year by 10,000, with much of the increase for Syrians.
The White House said that of 2,174 Syrians admitted to the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, none has been arrested or deported because of allegations they harbored extremist ambitions.
AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner and writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.