Late last week, in their final vote before a Thanksgiving break, U.S. House members easily approved a bill to effectively block Syrian refugees from reaching American soil. The outcome wasn’t close – supporters easily outnumbered opponents, 289 to 137, with 47 House Democrats breaking ranks and joining nearly every Republican in the chamber.
The legislation faces an uncertain future in the Senate, but a nagging question remains unresolved: how many of those 289 House representatives realized this is a bad bill, but voted for it anyway?
One lawmaker in particular offers a rather extraordinary example.
Republican Rep. Steve Russell delivered a speech on the House floor this week decrying his colleagues’ “xenophobic” push against Syrian refugees in the wake of last week’s Paris attacks. “While I have focused my comments on actions we should take to eliminate ISIS, one action we should not take is to become like them,” the Oklahoma-based lawmaker said. “America is a lamp that lights the horizon of civilized and free mankind. The Statue of Liberty cannot have a stiff arm. Her arm must continue to keep the torch burning brightly.”He added: “If we use our passions and our anger, fear, and we use that to snuff out her flame by xenophobic and knee-jerk policy, the enemy wins. We have played into their hands. Period.”
It was a powerful and compelling argument from a far-right lawmaker, reminding his colleagues about the importance of America’s best instincts and our proudest traditions.
And yet, when it came time to consider the controversial bill, Steve Russell followed the herd and voted against Syrian refugees, even after his spirited condemnation of Congress’ “xenophobic” push and “knee-jerk” reaction to Paris.
What in the world happened between the Oklahoma congressman’s speech and his vote?
TPM talked to Russell, who explained on Friday that he actually voted against the bill, before ultimately reversing course. The congressman described the scene on the floor after he cast his initial vote.
His colleagues then “surrounded” him on the floor and asked him to switch his vote since his approval would give the bill a veto-proof majority, according to Russell. He demanded that he have “seat at the table on all future discussions on this issue,” and once an agreement was met, Russell switched his vote. […]Russell told TPM that “nobody” believes the bill passed on Thursday will be the final legislation, and that the veto-proof majority would give the House leverage when negotiating with the Senate.
For the record, there’s no real merit to such a strategy. The “leverage” of a veto-proof majority is only effective if all the relevant players believe there’s a two-thirds majority prepared to back a bad, reactionary bill. If Russell freely admits that he has no use for the bill the House passed, then the White House realizes that those 289 supporters aren’t fully committed to the legislation – which necessarily has the effect of undermining the chamber’s leverage.
Tactical considerations notwithstanding, it’s nevertheless a shame when a lawmaker wants to do the right thing, but feels like he can’t.