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Trump Comments Spark Senate Fireworks

Sessions said immigration policy should be mindful of security risks. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo.)

"Is it in the national interest to admit the ISIS member equally with the Buddhist?"  

That was one of the rhetorical questions from Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, as the Senate Judiciary Committee debated religious tests for immigrants, and a Senate hearing room became the latest venue for a rebuke to Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.  

The debate, which came in the aftermath of Trump's call for a halt to Muslim immigration, took place after Judiciary ranking member Patrick J. Leahy offered an amendment to a nuclear terrorism bill being marked up that would express the sense of the Senate against barring people from entering the United States based on religious beliefs.  

"Many on this committee have rightfully expressed their outrage about the call earlier this week to shut our borders to Muslims," the Vermont Democrat said. "Now we need to formally go on the record to reject this reprehensible position."  

While acknowledging that sense of the Senate resolutions do not carry the force of law, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California who is a longtime member of the Judiciary panel, said Leahy's amendment was well-timed, making reference to Trump.  

"When I heard the leading candidate of the great Republican Party step up and say that he would ban one religion across the board for entry into this country, I felt like somebody had shot me in the gut because everything that I believe about this great country is an antithesis of that, and if one of the major two parties is going to put this country in a position to violate the basic tenet on which it was founded — and that's separation of church and state — it's a whole different situation for the United States," said Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.  

But, it was Sessions who offered the most extensive comments, speaking in opposition to the Leahy amendment on the grounds that immigration policy should be based upon protecting the interests of American citizens.  

"Secretary [Ashton B. Carter] says ISIS is growing. What if it expands ever more rapidly and decides to focus its believers on a long-term effort to change the corrupt America? And their doctrines justify force, do they not? Can we say that ISIS’s form of religion is not a religion just because it is not consistent with classical Islam? Why could they not demand as strong a right to enter as a peaceful meditating Buddhist? Is it in the national interest to admit the ISIS member equally with the Buddhist?" Sessions said. "Is it wrong to say that immigration must serve the legitimate interests of America and that others are more likely than those committed to violent ideologies? After all, we can’t admit everybody."  

The vote itself was not close, however. Judiciary Committee members voted 16-4 in favor of Leahy's amendment. Sessions and presidential hopeful Ted Cruz joined fellow Republican Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and David Vitter of Louisiana in opposing the amendment.  

Tillis said in a statement that he didn't want the underlying bill regarding terrorism to get tied up with the debate over Trump's comments.  

"Rather than pass this simple, bipartisan bill out of committee, we got mired into a partisan discussion, the result of which will likely be that this bill does not move forward. I voted against Senator Leahy's amendment because I'm intent on keeping my eye on the real culprit here, the terrorists, not what any candidate for the presidency says or doesn't say," Tillis said. "If anyone wonders why Washington doesn’t work, they need not look any further than this course of events."  

Cruz's Senate office echoed the sentiment of Tillis, accusing Leahy of a "political stunt."  

"A nuclear terrorism bill is not the place for political games, which is why after voting against Senator Leahy's amendment, Senator Cruz voted for the Nuclear Terrorism bill to protect Americans against this grave threat," Cruz's office said in an email.

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