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House Passes Legislation Designed To Pause Refugee Resettlement

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. House has passed legislation to effectively stop Syrian and Iraqi refugees from coming to this country. There are no known national security threats posed by these refugees. But after the Paris attacks, lawmakers are looking at new ways to tighten foreign points of entry. NPR's Susan Davis reports.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Republicans on Capitol Hill say they are not trying to shut down the refugee program. The legislation, they say, is only a pause. Here's House speaker Paul Ryan.

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PAUL RYAN: When we have indications that some of the Paris bombers, one, at least may have come through the refugee routes, don't you think that common sense dictates that we should take a pause and get this right?

DAVIS: The bill puts new requirements on intelligence officials to sign off on every refugee, and it puts pressure on the FBI to beef up the background check system, although it doesn't tell them how to do it. FBI director James Comey told Congress last month he could not give absolute assurances that the program carries zero risk. Most Democrats voted against the bill. They say the refugee program works pretty well. California's Adam Schiff is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

ADAM SCHIFF: We think this is a program that has a lot of safety mechanisms built in. It's a year-and-a-half to two-year process as it is. And among the 750,000 refugees we've taken in since 9/11, we've had very few problems with any of them, so it's been a very successful vetting process.

DAVIS: President Obama says he has confidence in the vetting program, and he will veto the bill if it reaches his desk. The White House is also going ahead with its plan to bring in up to 10,000 Iraqi and Syrian refugees next year. Republicans may still try to attach it to a must-pass government funding bill in December, possibly forcing another showdown with the White House. Lawmakers say they will next turn to the visa waiver program. It lets citizens from 38 countries make short trips to the U.S. without a visa. Senate Foreign Relations chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee put it this way.

BOB CORKER: What's emerging as a centrality of thought is that the visa waiver program potentially is the place where there's greater gaps, possibly, than the refugee program itself.

DAVIS: A new Senate bill proposed today would block anyone who has visited Syrian or Iraq in the past five years from entering the U.S. through the visa waiver program. Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.