How The White House Lost Democrats On The Syrian Refugee Bill

It was a mix of politics and weak messaging.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) joined Republicans and 46 other Democrats to vote for a bill aimed at making it harder for Syrians and Iraqis to be approved for refugee status.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) joined Republicans and 46 other Democrats to vote for a bill aimed at making it harder for Syrians and Iraqis to be approved for refugee status.
J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- In the lead-up to Thursday's House vote for tightening restrictions on Syrian refugees seeking entry into the United States, senior Democrats warned fellow members that they faced a massive backlash next fall if they didn't support the bill.

Forty-seven Democrats voted for the SAFE Act, which aims to impose additional requirements on an already cumbersome refugee screening process, including certification that individual refugees don't pose a threat. The votes came despite notice from the administration that President Barack Obama would veto the measure, raising the question of why the president's team was unable to move its own party on the most high-profile legislative response to last week's Paris terrorist attacks that killed 129 people.

The answer is a mix of counteracting political pressures and poor White House communication, according to multiple Democratic sources.

In several meetings, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) presented fellow Democrats with polling data showing that lawmakers who didn't support tighter restrictions would be in the sharp minority. As former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Israel is often called on to give advice on electoral matters. And while he didn't explicitly encourage members to vote for the SAFE Act, the implication was clear: you will be vulnerable if you don't support the only piece of refugee-related legislation that has gotten a vote after the Paris attacks.

"I present polling data on a weekly basis to inform my colleagues of where the American electorate stands on current issues, and this week was no different," Israel told The Huffington Post. "I also reiterated more than once that I was in no way telling Members how to vote and that they should listen to the Ranking Members with policy expertise on this issue."

A second senior Democrat warned of the electoral consequences of opposing the bill during a meeting of Democratic whips, who are charged with corralling votes on a given issue. This Democrat told the room that the bill "doesn't hurt the refugee process, so put a certification stamp at the bottom and move on," according to a lawmaker who was present. "Don't let this non-issue become a battering ram against Democrats."

A top House Democratic aide cautioned that the universe of lawmakers whom Israel tried to persuade was limited. Far more consequential, aides say, was the failure of the Obama administration to make the case that the SAFE Act was either excessive or unnecessary.

Israel said as much himself after leaving a Democratic caucus briefing on Thursday with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.

"I've seen better presentations in my time here," Israel told reporters. "They may have strong arguments on their side, but they're not expressing those strong arguments sufficiently."

An aide in the meeting with Johnson and McDonough said the administration’s presentation was “too complicated” and was “not going over well.” Another aide said they didn't answer basic questions presented by lawmakers, such as why it was not practical or doable to add another level of certification on top of the current vetting process.

One House Democrat, who requested anonymity, said he went into the meeting with administration officials opposed to the bill but left in support of it.

"If the White House hadn't royally fucked this up they'd have lost maybe 20 Democrats," said the lawmaker. (He ultimately voted against the bill.)

White House press secretary Josh Earnest rejected a suggestion that the administration's lobbying on the Hill wasn't well organized.

"I'm not sure the analysis holds that the efforts by the White House were counterproductive. They just weren’t as productive as we would have liked," Earnest said during a Friday press gaggle in Malaysia. "Our position on this legislation has not changed.”

From its vantage point, the administration was peeved by what it saw as spinelessness on behalf of House Democrats. The president and his aides have argued the refugee screenings are already robust. And they have warned that focusing the debate so strongly on Syrians leaving their country could have strategic blowback. It was a sentiment shared by other Democrats, both in the Senate and on the presidential campaign trail, who took solace in Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) vow that the SAFE Act wouldn't pass a filibuster in his chamber.

The top House Democratic aide said that members were encouraged to support the bill in part because they believed it would ultimately fall short of becoming law. That, combined with a sense that the underlying reforms weren't severe, led many to conclude a "nay" vote wasn't worth the political blowback.

"It would be foolish for Democrats to fall on a sword over what would be a very narrow bureaucratic rationale, that 'well, it adds a burden,'" Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told reporters after leaving the briefing with administration officials. He went on to vote for the bill.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who opposed the bill but was not present for the vote, said he thought his colleagues were getting pressure from their constituents. The White House could have made it "a little more explicit" that the bill would make refugee approvals nearly impossible, he said, but that public pressure meant some people would break off anyway.

"We're all elected in separate congressional districts," he told reporters on Thursday morning. "We live and die alone around here. So people are making their own decisions."

The Paris attacks clearly changed the tone on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers were in a frenzy all week to do something, anything, to show that they're tough on terrorism. Just two months ago, some of the same Democrats who just voted to make it harder for Syrian refugees to enter the country were hailing the effectiveness of the current screening process -- and urging the administration to accept 100,000 more Syrian refugees.

"There are those who will oppose taking in additional refugees. They will say it is a security risk," reads a Sept. 11 letter to the president from dozens of Democrats. "This criticism ignores the fact that the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program subjects applicants to more thorough security vetting than any other traveler or immigrant to the United States."

They add, "We agree with Refugee Council USA's recent recommendation that the United States resettle a minimum of 200,000 refugees by the end of 2016, including 100,000 Syrian refugees."

Ten Democrats on that letter voted Thursday to crack down on Syrian refugee admissions: Israel, Connolly, Lloyd Doggett (Texas), Janice Hahn (Calif.), Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), Ann Kuster (N.H.), Rick Nolan (Minn.), Jared Polis (Colo.), Tim Ryan (Ohio) and Marc Veasey (Texas).

This story has been updated to include information about a meeting of Democratic whips, as well as comment from Josh Earnest.

Laura Barron-Lopez contributed reporting.

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