Senators warm to refugee program, bash Obama for ‘browbeating’ critics

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Paris and Syria topped the agenda of a classified Senate briefing Tuesday, which left lawmakers optimistic about the refugee screening program but peeved with a “browbeating” President Obama.

Migrants wait to register with the police at the refugee center in the southern Serbian town of Presevo, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. Refugees fleeing war by the tens of thousands fear the Paris attacks could prompt Europe to close its doors, especially after police said a Syrian passport found next to one attacker’s body suggested its owner passed through Greece into the European Union and on through Macedonia and Serbia last month. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
Migrants wait to register with the police at the refugee center in the southern Serbian town of Presevo, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. Refugees fleeing war by the tens of thousands fear the Paris attacks could prompt Europe to close its doors, especially after police said a Syrian passport found next to one attacker’s body suggested its owner passed through Greece into the European Union and on through Macedonia and Serbia last month. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Multiple agencies brought senators up to speed on how the U.S. is currently screening incoming refugees and helping French authorities investigate Friday’s deadly Paris attacks that left 129 people dead.

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., convened the secret briefing, held behind frosted glass doors that lasted two and a half hours.

Corker said the meeting was “enlightening, to say the least” and “went a long way” toward bolstering his confidence in America’s refugee screening program.

He wasn’t feeling quite so rosy about President Barack Obama’s approach to the issue.

Obama told reporters those who oppose letting 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country under the current system are “scared of widows and orphans.”

Sen. Corker let loose on the president’s “unhelpful” rhetoric.

Corker said that Obama and his team are complicating the process, arguing, “To browbeat people because they’re concerned about their kids is not a productive process.”

“Most senators, a handful or less, even understood until this morning the [screening] processes that we go through, so it is incumbent upon the administration to assure people and assure all of us that we have systems in place that will keep Americans safe,” said Corker.

Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona agreed that President Obama “went over the line” in his comments, suggesting, “Instead of blaming people or assuming people are bigots, come out and explain what the vetting process is.”

Flake added, “I do feel more comfortable” on the screening program, but he withheld his full support for now.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) says bad communication on refugee programs led governors to do "stupid things." (Photo credit: Chance Seales)
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) says bad communication on refugee programs led governors to do “stupid things.” (Photo credit: Chance Seales)

Other Foreign Relations Committee members, likely facing tough votes on House legislation to pause the flow of 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S., remained tight-lipped on what they learned in the briefing or how they’ll respond on the Senate floor.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., concurred that the Obama administration, not the screening process, is the refugee program’s root problem at present. “This is a very solid vetting process but I don’t think the administration has explained it to the American public,” Kaine told reporters.

The Virginia Democrat blamed the president’s botched communication for the wave of mostly-conservative governors denying refugees a place in their states, saying, “If they don’t know what we’re doing, then they’re going to say stupid stuff and they’re going to do stupid things – and many governors have.”

On the House side, Republicans rolled out findings of a nearly year-long Homeland Security Committee investigation of Syrian refugee threats to the U.S.

Committee Chairman Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas,  announced, “My team has found alarming gaps in the vetting of Syrian refugees at home and abroad, and in this high threat environment, we must take urgent action to keep Islamist terrorists from infiltrating their ranks.”

McCaul has introduced the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) bill, “Calling for a temporary suspension of Syrian refugee admissions until a full review of the resettlement program, including vetting security risks, could be completed.”

The House is expected to pass any initial legislation curtailing the nation’s refugee resettlement program, with the Senate giving it later consideration.

Follow National Correspondent Chance Seales on Twitter @ChanceSeales.

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