Senate Democrats block GOP bill to curb flow of refugees

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WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats blocked consideration of a Republican bill to curb the flow of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the United States in order to prevent terrorists from slipping in.

In exchange for taking up the bill, Democrats wanted votes on amendments including one that would have forced GOP senators to go on-the-record on Donald Trump’s controversial plan to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S.

The 55 to 43 vote largely split down party lines and fell short of the 60 votes needed for the bill to advance. The result means the refugee bill, which passed the House with broad bipartisan support in November, likely is dead for the year.

President Barack Obama had warned he would veto the bill if it made it to his desk.

Wednesday’s vote had both national security and 2016 campaign ramifications.

Concern about the refugees is a dominant political issue in the presidential campaign, with Republican front-runner Trump leading the charge against the Obama administration refugee program to provide a safe haven for thousands of people fleeing those war-ravaged countries.

Republican presidential candidates, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, returned to Washington to vote to advance the bill. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, missed the vote.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged his colleagues to advance the measure.

“It’s clear that many Americans are concerned about the administration’s ability to properly vet thousands of individuals from Syria and Iraq. Elected officials in both parties have expressed concerns too, as have administration officials,” he said. “That’s why many Americans are asking us to take a step back and press ‘pause’ on the program so we can ensure we have the correct policies and security screenings in place.”

The bill would have required the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and Director of National Intelligence all to certify that individuals from Syria or Iraq — or a refugee who has visited one of those countries in the last five years — is not a security threat and can be admitted to the U.S.

The Obama administration first threatened to veto the bill when it passed the House in November with the support of 47 Democrats, which meant it could have enough support to override a veto in that chamber. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said at the time he expected his caucus to block the Senate from debating the bill.

Complicating matters for Democrats — many of whom defend the refugee program as safe and necessary — are recent developments that heightened voters’ concerns about terrorists crossing the border. For instance, the San Bernardino mass shooting was carried out by ISIS sympathizers and two Iraqi refugees were arrested in recent weeks on terrorism charges in California and Texas.

“We cannot allow America’s welcome mat to be turned into a door mat for radicalized Islamic extremists who are hard-wired to kill innocent people and destroy our way of life,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who chairs the Judiciary Committee.

Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Iraq and other Mideast countries, warned lowering the number of refugees could feed the sense in that region that the U.S. has turned on Arabs, and Sunni Arabs in particular.

While he was there to express confidence in the vetting process, Olsen acknowledged he couldn’t guarantee a bad actor wouldn’t slip through.

“No process is absolutely perfect and there is no way to guarantee that every person who enters the country poses no threat. That’s not realistic,” he said. “The bottom line, from my understanding of the process now, is that if there is a doubt about the security of a person, then that person is not going to be admitted.”

CNN’s Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

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