CAPITOL HILL —
U.S. lawmakers of both political parties are criticizing President Barack Obama’s handling of the political firestorm surrounding America’s acceptance of Syrian refugees in the aftermath of last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris.
“Someone needs to explain clearly to the American people the processes that we go through before we admit refugees,” said Republican Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The American people just want to know they are safe,” Corker added. “And to browbeat somebody because they have a concern, to say that they are irrational or they don’t understand who we are as a nation – it just doesn’t help. It hurts."
WATCH: Video of Sen. Corker discussing issue
Governors speak out
Dozens of governors around the country have declared they do not want Syrians settled in their states, fearing Islamic State infiltrators will launch attacks on U.S. soil. The House of Representatives is expected to vote Thursday on a bill halting the flow of Syrian and Iraqi asylum-seekers until the U.S. government’s vetting process is strengthened.
A White House statement says if the president is presented with a House bill, he would veto that bill.
"Given the lives at stake and the critical importance to our partners in the Middle East and Europe of American leadership in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, if the President were presented with H.R. 4038, he would veto the bill," the statement reads.
"The Administration's highest priority is to ensure the safety and security of the American people. That is why refugees of all nationalities, including Syrians and Iraqis, considered for admission to the United States undergo the most rigorous and thorough security screening of anyone admitted into the United States."
Corker’s committee received a closed-door briefing by administration officials on how refugees are screened, a process that can take up to two years. Many senators emerged saying they are greatly reassured by what they heard. At the same time, they accused the White House of allowing fears to grow and fester.
“This is a very solid vetting process, but I don’t think the administration has explained it to the American public,” said Democrat Tim Kaine.
“There are a lot of people who have legitimate security concerns after something like Paris, and they [White House officials] haven’t done a good job of telling governors, telling the mayors, telling the American public what the vetting process is,” said Kaine.
“When people are upset and concerned and worried, then they are going to say stupid stuff. And they are going to do stupid things. And I think many governors have,” he added.
Speaking Wednesday in the Philippines, Obama accused mostly Republican governors of being “scared of widows and orphans” and giving Islamic State a “potent recruitment tool” by singling out Syrian refugees.
Earlier, Obama said rejecting asylum-seekers would betray American values and the nation’s long history as a destination for the oppressed.
“It doesn’t help. Really, I thought he [Obama] went over the line,” said Republican Senator Jeff Flake. “Instead of blaming people and assuming people are bigots, [Obama should] come out and explain what the vetting process is. I think people will feel more comfortable.”
Demands for more information appear to have gotten through to the White House, which held a 90-minute conference call with 34 governors Wednesday to explain the U.S. admissions process for refugees.
The administration’s stepped up efforts to reassure lawmakers and state governors are unlikely to dissuade Congress from voting to boost scrutiny of asylum-seekers from IS-controlled territory.
Corker spoke approvingly of the House bill put forth by new Speaker Paul Ryan.
“Speaker Ryan is attempting to hit that sweet spot: to not stop the intake of refugees but to have certification that, in fact, the program has integrity,” Corker said.
Even so, the senator said no refugee-vetting process can be completely foolproof, and that some radicals may have no paper trail indicating their violent intentions.
“If someone hasn’t created a ripple in the pond in the past, then there would be no way to actually know what their background is,” Corker said.
“But I want to say clearly: part of America’s values is accepting people in need. I have visited refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan and seen families that are destitute. It’s pitiful to see some of the conditions that people are living in just to get away from the barrel bombing that’s taking place [in Syria],” he added.