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Congressman Tom Cole

Representing the 4th District of Oklahoma

Fortune: With Syrian Refugees Bill, Paul Ryan Carves Out Winning Path for Republicans

November 19, 2015
News Stories

Fortune - Steven T. Dennis

Paul Ryan’s on a roll. The new House speaker set Democrats back on their heels this week with a proposal to hit the pause button on the U.S. acceptance of Syrian refugees, even as he forcefully put down anti-Muslim sentiment on his party’s right flank.

The vote total on the Syrian refugee bill was notable — 289 in favor — effectively a veto-proof majority unless President Barack Obama can persuade more Democrats to hold the line. Two Republicans expected to back the bill did not vote. And it would be enough to override the president unless every missing Democrat showed up and voted yes. That amounts to a rare bipartisan rebuke of President Barack Obama, who had spoken forcefully against Republican fear of Syrian widows and orphans.

Only two Republicans opposed Ryan’s gambit, in a show of unity that had become increasingly rare under John Boehner’s reign.

The Democratic defections came despite a full court press from White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who assured lawmakers that refugees already go through a thorough and extensive background check process to ensure American security.

The measure faces an uphill road in the Senate. Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it will not pass. The White House has recovered from setbacks before — notably when Obama’s own party abandoned him earlier this year on fast-track trade authority, which ultimately became law.

But as a governing move, Ryan’s push for a third way on Syria refugees may give his party a blueprint for a more successful governing style, provided Ryan’s flock continues to back him. The restless House Freedom Caucus lined up behind the bill and, for once, the storyline will be about Democratic disarray instead of Republican infighting.

That’s what a new speaker can bring.

“Paul has done a great job in a week or so that he’s here. He’s brought the conference together,” said Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., a member of the Freedom Caucus.

Ryan also stood up to the forces of intolerance in his own party — rebuking a push by Sen. Ted Cruz and some conservative media outlets and talk show hosts to limit the accepted cohort of Syrian refugees to Christians, as well as calls on the broader right to restrict Muslim immigration to the U.S. in general.

“That’s not who we are,” Ryan told Sean Hannity Wednesday night on Fox News when asked about restricting Muslim immigration.

Ryan’s early strength could lower the odds of a government shutdown, something neither he nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants. Right now, the strategy is to put separate bills on President Obama’s desk to defund Planned Parenthood, repeal much of Obamacare, and, now, potentially the Syria refugee issue as well.

That could be a way to avoid holding up the entire budget over hot-button issues that have brought Congress to the brink — and over the brink — into a shutdown in the past.

Republicans need to learn there are limits to what Ryan will be able to accomplish, said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.

“I don’t think shutting down the government is an acceptable tool,” Cole said. “We’ve broadly moved the country to the right, but we can’t get as far as we would like absent a Republican president.”

Online: Fortune