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White House scrambles to regain control of refugee debate

<p>The White House, caught flat-footed this week as President Barack Obama visited Asia, is scrambling to regain control of<b> </b>the debate around allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. and to slow legislation that it says would be against American values.</p><p>In the days since a group of attackers unleashed a night of terror in Paris, Republicans have zeroed in on the threat that Syrian refugees could pose if ISIL fighters slipped in with them and have fast-tracked legislation that would toughen up the screening process. </p><p>Dozens of Democrats, fearful of voting against such security measures, have joined the GOP effort, and they’re publicly grumbling about sub-par messaging from the White House.<b> </b></p> <p>But now the Obama administration has cranked up a multi-front effort to halt the legislation and try to reclaim the conversation around the thousands of refugees who were due to be resettled in the U.S. next year.</p> <p>Vice President Joe Biden, who has kept a relatively low profile since announcing he’s not jumping into the 2016 presidential race, used sharp language Thursday to warn that the United States’ promise of possibility and optimism, including toward those seeking refuge, is slipping away and endangering the country’s &quot;soul.&quot;</p> <p>“It’s always been true in this country. And if we ever lose that, then we will have lost something incredibly special and consequential here in the United States. We’ll have lost the soul of the country, and I would argue we’re in danger of losing it now. That’s why I’m here,&quot; Biden <a href=”http://www.politico.com/story/2015/11/joe-biden-syria-refugees-216067″ target=”_blank”>said</a> during a speech in front of the Aspen Institute Summit on Inequality and Opportunity at the Newseum in Washington.</p><p>Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James Comey also hastily pulled together a <a href=”http://www.politico.com/story/2015/11/james-comey-fbi-paris-attack-us-216076″ target=”_blank”>press conference</a> to reassure jittery Americans but to also try to turn around the conversation about the refugees. </p><br><p>&quot;I understand people are concerned and they’re anxious and they’re afraid. I understand all of that,” Lynch said, growing emotional. “I just find it very troubling when we live and we take action out of fear as opposed to out of resolve and determination and based on facts… My other concern about the tone is it’s in direct conflict with who we are as a nation and our values as a people.&quot;</p> <p>A top State Department official for refugees, Simon Henshaw, made a guest appearance at the daily briefing in Foggy Bottom to detail screening procedures.</p><p>Even George W. Bush administration officials are getting in on the act: Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who has been in regular touch with White House aides, penned a <a href=”https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/documents/Refugee_Process_Chertoff_Napolitano_11192015.pdf” target=”_blank”>letter</a> assuring the president that existing screening techniques are “thorough and robust.” It was co-signed by a former Obama DHS chief, Janet Napolitano – and tweeted out by the president’s staff.</p><p>The new messaging effor<b>t </b>has all the trappings of a damage control effort, especially after Obama stoked Republicans’ ire earlier this week by scolding them from Manila about the efforts to stop Syrian refugees, saying he could not &quot;think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric” Republicans were using.</p><p>Thursday’s House vote was evidence that some damage had already been done, with 47 Democrats helping Republicans achieve a <a href=”http://www.politico.com/story/2015/11/syria-refugee-bill-vote-216053″ target=”_blank”>veto-proof majority </a>on the refugee bill, which would require an extra level of certification for Syrians. That was despite a briefing from current Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough earlier in the day; Democrats who voted for the bill said the administration didn’t make the case the bill would be all that bad.</p><p>“If you look at the bill, it’s hard to see how it’s as awful as the administration is portraying it as,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.).</p><p>Democratic senators found a similar presentation on Wednesday evening more convincing. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he was no longer willing to consider pausing Syrian refugee entries, preferring instead to restrict people who’ve traveled to Syria with European passports from entering the U.S. without applying for a visa.</p><p>Schumer offered the president something of a backhanded compliment, essentially saying his actions were more effective than his messaging.</p><p>&quot;The president’s doing a very good job,” Schumer said. “I think the word has to get out as to how good a job he has done, both in terms of trying to make us secure but also in terms of progress that we’ve made in the Middle East.”</p><p>Particularly compelling, Schumer said, was a map showing that ISIL held “considerably less” territory than it did last year, as well as the fact that of the more than 2,000 Syrian refugees admitted since 2011, none have been arrested on terror charges.</p><p>&quot;I think these things should be publicized so the American people feel secure,” Schumer said.</p><p>In fact, White House press secretary Josh Earnest has been citing the territory statistic for months – it was the basis for Obama’s ill-timed claim last week that ISIL was “contained,” and the refugee numbers have been an administration talking point for much of the past week. But the message evidently isn’t getting through. </p><p>So the White House stepped it up even more on Thursday, creating a sharable “<a href=”https://twitter.com/Benenati44/status/667452729401458690/photo/1″ target=”_blank”>By the Numbers</a>” graphic on Syrian refugees. That went out under the hashtag #refugeeswelcome, which gained popularity on Tuesday when former Secretary of State Madeline Albright <a href=”https://twitter.com/madeleine/status/666770241343643648″ target=”_blank”>tweeted</a> not as a foreign affairs expert defending Obama’s decisions on ISIL, but as the daughter of refugees herself.</p><p>Obama, who has repeatedly expressed frustration that his critics aren’t proposing alternative plans for fighting ISIL, followed up himself by tweeting a torrent from the other side of the world on Wednesday night. </p><p>&quot;Slamming the door in the face of refugees would betray our deepest values. That’s not who we are. And it’s not what we’re going to do,&quot; he said, concluding a series of eight messages that the White House compiled on <a href=”https://www.facebook.com/WhiteHouse/photos/a.158628314237.115142.63811549237/10153905900319238/?type=3″ target=”_blank”>Facebook</a>. </p><p>&quot;This has been a useful debate over the last few days, particularly the Senate briefing which highlighted concerns about the Visa Waiver Program,&quot; said White House deputy press secretary Jen Friedman, in an email. &quot;We look forward to continuing to work with senators to address concerns in the visa waiver program, while continuing to make our case about the importance of the refugee program that has functioned very well since the mid-1970s.&quot;</p><br><p>Lynch and Comey stepped in to offer a law-enforcement angle on Thursday — a day after Comey <a href=”http://www.politico.com/story/2015/11/fbi-director-comey-paris-senate-216045″ target=”_blank”>angered senators</a> by begging off their briefing. Planned with just hours notice, Thursday’s event was initially billed as a “pen and pad” discussion for reporters, with no cameras allowed. That plan changed at the last minute too, with both figures giving televised statements, though they covered little new ground. </p><p>&quot;What concerns me about the tone is it very much runs the risk of essentially devolving the problem on one group of people and saying if we just fix this one thing, we’re done and we’re safe,&quot; the attorney general said of the debate over refugees.</p><p>For his part, Comey, who fueled the concerns of lawmakers when he said <a href=”http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3283587/FBI-admits-s-no-way-screen-Syrian-refugees-Obama-administration-plans-accept-US.html” target=”_blank”>last month</a> that the federal government can’t vet all the Syrian refugees, said on Thursday there was “no credible threat” of Paris- like attacks in the U.S.</p><p>He added that the threshold for assurance in the House refugee bill would be impossible to meet.</p><p>It would be &quot;very, very difficult for us to say, as to anyone coming into the country, that there is zero risk,&quot; Comey said.</p><p>Lauren French, Nick Gass and Josh Gerstein contributed reporting.<br /></p><br><br><br>

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