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House passes GOP bill restricting Syrian refugees

The White House has promised to veto the bill and argues it provides “no meaningful additional security for the American people."

The Republican-led House of Representatives passed legislation on Thursday that essentially halts Syrian refugees from coming into the United States, despite President Barack Obama’s promise to veto the bill.

The legislation, proposed in response to last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, passed by a 289 to 137 vote with overwhelming support from Republicans. Forty-seven Democrats voted in favor of the measure, while just two Republicans voted against it along with 135 Democrats.

H.R. 4038 is aimed at strengthening screenings for Syrian and Iraqi refugees who want to enter the United States. It adds stricter requirements for refugees, including FBI background checks and mandates that the heads of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, in addition to the Director of National Intelligence, personally certify that each refugee being allowed into the U.S. doesn’t pose a security threat.

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The White House argued in a statement that the bill provides “no meaningful additional security for the American people” and will only create “significant delays and obstacles in the fulfillment of a vital program that satisfies both humanitarian and national security objectives.” Critics have also argued such changes would essentially keep refugees out of the country altogether and say it’s fear mongering at its worst. Republicans, meanwhile, say the issue is a matter of national security.

Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said on the House floor before the vote that the bill is “aimed at fueling fear rather than protecting the American people,” noting that the flood of refugees who have been fleeing to Europe and other regions are doing so to escape civil war and ISIS-related violence. “This Congress is losing its humanity ... We’re behaving in a way that I believe reinforces what the terrorists are trying to communicate to the rest of the world—that somehow we don’t care about people from certain parts of the world.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan, like many Republicans, countered that helping refugees should not take precedence: “We are a compassionate nation. We always have been and we always will be, but we also must remember that our first priority is to protect the American people.”

It’s possible Republicans could tie the refugee issue to negotiations over government funding, which could increase the chances of a government shutdown if an agreement isn’t hammered out by Dec. 11. Ryan noted at a press conference on Thursday that there are always “riders” in funding bills when asked if language about the refugees might be included in the spending bill.

Meanwhile, an NBC News/Survey Monkey poll released on Wednesday showed the majority of Americans -- 56% -- are against allowing more migrants fleeing violence in Syria and other countries into the U.S., while 41% are for it. But it’s an issue that’s divided sharply along party lines, with 81% of Republicans disapproving of accepting more Syrian refugees compared to 31% of Democrats. Meanwhile, 65% of Democrats approve of the president’s policy compared to 17% of Republicans.

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So far, approximately 2,200 Syrian refugees have been allowed into the country in the last four years after a lengthy application process that involves in-person screening and layers of checks from the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Department of Defense.

The House vote comes as more than half of the nation’s governors (all Republicans except for one) have said they will oppose accepting Syrian refugees or will not allow any more—either temporarily or permanently – into their states. Republican presidential candidates are also trying to curb the flow of Syrian refugees into the U.S. The Obama administration, meanwhile, says it will continue to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees within the next year.

Syria is believed to be one of the home bases of the terrorist group known as ISIS, which has claimed responsibility for Friday’s attacks in Paris that killed 129 people and injured at least 350.

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The bill goes to the Senate next, but it’s unclear if it will be taken up after the Thanksgiving break. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid predicted during a press conference that the refugee legislation wouldn’t get through the upper chamber of Congress. “Don’t worry, it won’t get passed,” he said.