Risks liberal upset in suddenly changed atmosphere
By Kevin E. Foley
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the Democrat who represents New York’s 18th Congressional District, which includes Philipstown and Beacon, joined with the Republican House majority last week in voting for the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015. The hastily written bill came in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people and wounded several hundred others.
The legislation, according to new Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, would further tighten the certification process for refugees from Syria and Iraq hoping to enter the United States.
In addition to the current screening requirements, the bill would require three agencies (the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence) to certify that a refugee applicant is not a threat to Americans. President Obama and refugee advocates have argued that stringent screening is already in place for refugees, with wait times approaching two years.
Maloney, no stranger to bucking the Democratic leadership when he thinks it is needed, issued a statement on the day the bill passed:
“Our nation has long stood as a beacon of freedom, but after the events of the last few weeks some leaders have given into fear and turned their backs on refugees,” he said. “These actions are reprehensible, and present a false choice between our values and our security. It’s understandable that people are scared, and Americans have a right to know that the process we use to screen refugees will keep us safe.
“I have faith in our system, and I don’t believe these refugees — the overwhelming majority of whom are women, elderly, and children — threaten our communities or national security. So instead of slowing the program or pausing it, the administration should agree to immediately certify refugees if they pass the current extensive screenings and we should all refocus on actual threats.”
The statement gives the impression that he would be opposed to actions such as the Republican legislation he actually voted for. The New York Times asked Maloney for comment on his and other Democrats’ discussions with presidential aides: “I started out strongly opposed to it,” he told the Times. “But then I read the bill and realized that what it actually required was simple certification. My back and forth with them was to make sure I wasn’t missing something.”
Other media, including the Huffington Post, described Maloney as particularly outspoken during discussions with administration officials about the threat to Democratic congressional seats if he and others voted “no” on the bill.
Speaker Ryan said he worked hard to bring Democrats such as Maloney on board so the legislation could be seen as a bipartisan concern for public safety rather a partisan political move. Nevertheless, the legislation was a swift and direct rebuke to the president, who urged Congress not to send a message abroad inconsistent with his administration’s efforts to find common ground with other countries, including European nations, on solutions to the complex issues of Iraq, Syria and terrorist organizations such as ISIL and al-Quaida.
The president was on a foreign tour when the legislation passed the House. The Senate has yet to act. Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, Senate minority leader, has vowed to defeat it, and the president has promised a veto, which would require both houses to override with a two-thirds majority vote. The House vote of 289-137 (including 47 Democrats) already meets that threshold.
The U.S. has accepted 1,500 refugees from this region in the four years since war broke out between the government of Syria and various rebel factions. In contrast, President Francois Hollande of France reaffirmed his country’s commitment to take in 25,000 refugees, most of whom are arriving from the Syrian-Iraq region where intense fighting and bombing campaigns are underway, including action by French, American and Russian forces.
The Republican-led congressional effort coincided with announcements across the country by Republican governors that they would seek to bar refugees from Iraq and Syria from their states even though their authority to do so is questionable legally.
Recent polls taken soon after the Paris violence reflect a majority in favor of the House legislation and a belief that national security is the top issue for the 2016 presidential race, replacing the economy.
Members of the House run for reelection in 2016 and Democrats in so-called swing districts where either party has a strong chance to win have to consider national election history, which generally gives Republicans the advantage when national security tops leads the agenda. Maloney’s “yes” vote can be seen as taking away a potential Republican wedge issue on legislation likely to not become law while risking the ire of some liberal Democrats who are offended by his vote and have expressed it loudly on social media.
Maloney has made a bipartisan approach to congressional matters a hallmark of his three-year tenure and often points to successes, such as recent train safety and bridge upgrade provisions in the new highway legislation, as proof of the value of his approach.