Democrats Try to Reconcile Positions on Travel Ban, 2015 Measure

2015 legislation would have strengthened the vetting process

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., was one of the members of Congress who voted for the SAFE Act but says President Donald Trump’s order goes further. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., was one of the members of Congress who voted for the SAFE Act but says President Donald Trump’s order goes further. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 3, 2017 at 5:30am

Virginia Democrat Gerald Connolly was among many elected officials at Washington Dulles International Airport who wanted to speak to detainees after President Donald Trump issued an executive order that severely restricted travel from seven majority-Muslim nations.

Connolly tweeted numerous photos of himself, along with fellow Democratic Reps. Don Beyer Jr. of Virginia and Jamie Raskin and John Delaney of Maryland.

But in 2015, Connolly and Delaney were among 47 House Democrats who voted for legislation that would have expanded the screening process for refugees.

While that may seem like a contradiction, Connolly and other Democrats say there is  a big difference. They said their votes in 2015  were to improve the screening process — not a blanket ban on citizens from Muslim-majority countries.

The American SAFE Act of 2015 passed the House of Representatives after terrorist attacks in Paris that year, but the measure died in the Senate.

The measure would allowed the FBI to conduct screening along with the  Department of Homeland Security. Refugees only would be let in once the DHS, the FBI and Director of National Intelligence agreed unanimously.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said on Tuesday that the protests were partly attempts to re-litigate the 2016 election and pointed to the SAFE Act.

“So some of this is faux outrage,” the Texan Republican said.

Connolly said he what he did in 2015 and what what he did at the airport is consistent with his position on refugees.

What Trump is doing with executive orders, he said, is entirely different.

“It does ban people,” he said. “It does pause the refugee program. It does discriminate against a whole class of people in seven countries.”

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said he heard from his constituents about their objections to the act after his 2015 vote.

“I still bear the scars from them,” Himes said. “In retrospect, it’s probably good that it didn’t become law.”

The 2015 vote came shortly before Trump, then a presidential candidate, proposed a ban on Muslims entering the United States.

Trump’s recent executive order prevents travel from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan and Libya for 90 days. It also suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions program for 120 days.

The executive order also suspended the entry of Syrian citizens for an indefinite amount of time, until the president determines it is safe to admit them into the country.

One of Trump’s early backers, New York Republican Chris Collins, said this was an example of political pandering.

“Truly, this is politics today,” the three-term congressman said. “We’ve got our base and so we’ve got Democrats talking to their base and we’ve got Republicans talking to theirs.”

Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., said the SAFE Act was intended to strengthen the vetting process.

“It was not for the purpose of prohibiting legitimate people with legitimate reasons from coming into this country,” he said.

Nolan, who narrowly won re-election last year despite his district breaking for Trump, said many people come to his state for medical  treatment at the Mayo Clinic and as university students. 

A blanket ban, particularly on Muslims, Nolan said, is a clear and egregious violation of “our constitution and our country,” Nolan said. 

Niels Lesniewski contributed to reporting.