House Democratic leadership braced Thursday for at least 60 defections on the Republican bill to strengthen the vetting of Syrian refugees seeking resettlement in the United States.
It wasn't quite that high, but 47 Democrats crossed the aisle to vote with nearly every Republican for Congress' first legislative response to the terrorist attacks in Paris — despite a veto threat from President Barack Obama. The coalition of Democrats supporting the measure, which passed 289-137, wasn't atypical of previous votes for which leadership could not justify opposition. Articulating a reason to vote "no" on a bill sold as one to keep Americans safe was the challenge for White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who delivered a pitch to House Democratic whips Thursday morning that was criticized as incoherent and unconvincing.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., called it a “strategic error” for the administration to oppose the bill.
“I think the administration has done a terrific job countering this disgusting xenophobia, which is a historical bad habit when we get scared," he said, "but I kind of wish they had taken the approach of acknowledging that this is not a bill at odds with our values and working with the House and the Senate — even if they don’t like it — to make it better.”
Ultimately, the "yes" votes on the bill came from members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, the moderate New Democrat Coalition and those who face the toughest re-election campaigns in 2016.
Perhaps the most surprising supporters of the GOP bill were New York Democrats Steve Israel and Louise M. Slaughter. Israel is the chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, whose alliance with leadership usually requires him to vote with the party.
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Slaughter is the ranking member on the Rules Committee and serves at the appointment of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who was public in her opposition of the bill but didn't whip against it.
“Some members were set to vote for this bill," the California Democrat said at her weekly news conference. "I don’t know if there would have been any answer that would have satisfied their concerns."
Pelosi and others touted a Democratic alternative, drafted by Reps. Zoe Lofgren of California and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, as well as proposals to examine the existing visa waiver program and to prohibit people who are on the terrorism watch list from being able to buy guns.
Thompson, the ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, told reporters McDonough and Johnson said during the Democratic whip meeting Thursday they actually preferred Thompson and Lofgren's proposal, which would have maintained the integrity of the refugee vetting process without the layers of bureaucracy that would, under the Republican bill, significantly slow down the time for refugees to gain entry into the United States.
Six Democrats were recorded as having not voted on the bill, which includes at least one member who would have voted "no," Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Keith Ellison. The Minnesota Democrat, one of two Muslims serving in the House, told CQ Roll Call earlier in the day there was a chance he'd have to miss the final vote if he could catch a plane back to his district to deal with a crisis in the community there.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has said the House bill would not clear the Senate. And a House Democratic leadership aide expressed confidence Democrats would be able to sustain President Barack Obama's veto of the bill, should it come to that, between the members who didn't vote Thursday and the ones who could change their minds between now and then.
Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.