Speaker Paul Ryan is moving toward a House vote Thursday on legislation to "pause" the resettlement of Syrian refugees to the U.S., as the White House struggles to save the program from mounting political opposition in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.
Administration officials launched a massive outreach to Capitol Hill and held a conference call with governors Tuesday, trying to prevent a suspension of the decades-old program over concerns it might allow terrorist sympathizers to slip into the United States.
"We cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion," Ryan said Tuesday after meeting with House Republicans. "This is a moment where it's better to be safe than to be sorry."
"We think the prudent and responsible thing is to take a pause in this particular aspect of this refugee program, in order to verify that terrorists are not trying to infiltrate the refugee population," Ryan said.
The new speaker faces pressure from Republicans in Congress -- and on the presidential campaign trail -- to stop the program that expects to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who also wants "a pause or a moratorium," said he and Ryan were working together on the issue.
Ryan assembled a task force over the weekend to draft a legislative package. Similar proposals are gaining in the Senate, where some Democrats have aligned with Republicans against the refugee program.
The House GOP's package was still being formed, but it would cover refugees from both Syria and Iraq, and allow entry only if the FBI director and other officials certified the refugee was not a security threat and had passed a background investigation, according to an aide to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Senior administration officials, alarmed by the sudden political backlash to the decades-old refugee program, fanned out to Capitol Hill this week to try to ease mounting concerns.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and FBI Director James Comey were briefing lawmakers late Tuesday evening, with another session scheduled Wednesday.
The resettlement program, first launched in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, has placed 3 million refugees of various nationalities in the U.S. over the years, and has long enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress, officials said.
This year, the State Department intends to increase the number of Syrian refugees from 1,680 to at least 10,000. Refugees are screened overseas and their applications are vetted in the U.S. by Homeland Security, FBI and other officials. Average processing time for all refugees to the U.S. is 18-24 months.
"We are talking about a program that is in the best American tradition and reflects our values," said a senior administration official, granted anonymity to discuss the program on a conference call with reporters.
"The thing I fear most about this current discussion... is we will lose bipartisan support," the official said.
The drumbeat against the Syrian refugee program has intensified in recent days as almost half the nation's governors have said they would prevent resettlement in their states.
Most of the Republican presidential candidates have called for the program to be suspended, though Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas wants to make exceptions for Christians.
Breaking from the pack, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush shifted his approach Tuesday and said the U.S. should not do away with its "noble tradition" of helping refugees.
"I don't think we should eliminate our support for refugees," Bush said in an interview with Bloomberg Politics. "It's been a noble tradition in our country for many years."
But Bush said the U.S. should not admit refugees "if there's any kind of concern."
Another shift came from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has been vocal in favor of immigrants, but suggested a more cautious approach to Syrian refugees.
"We have to have a system to determine who these people are," Kasich said, acknowledging that governors do not have the authority to block refugees. "We have to be careful for our country and our families."
Legislation has been proposed in various forms by members of Congress, mostly Republicans, to suspend refugee operations.
Democrats, meanwhile, have largely aligned with President Obama in urging colleagues not to target Syrians, many of whom are fleeing terrorism, they said.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), whose father and grandparents left Germany in the lead-up to World War II, said he was grateful the U.S. viewed his family as "enthusiastic immigrants seeking to escape the dangerous politics."
"Let's remember, the enemy in the current scenario is ISIS, not the refugees who flee from their destruction," Heinrich said, referring to Islamic State militants believed to be responsible for the terror attack in Paris.
Others, though, were open to curtailing the program if necessary. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he wanted more information.
"If it doesn't work, we'll tighten it up," Schumer said. "A pause may be necessary."
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also urged Congress not to "scapegoat" refugees.
"These refugees are fleeing terror themselves — violence like we have witnessed in Paris," said Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the Bishops' Committee on Migration. "We cannot and should not blame them for the actions of a terrorist organization."
Administration officials said Tuesday that half the Syrian refugees resettled in the U.S. have been children, and one-fourth are older than age 60. Men slightly outnumber women, an administration official said.
Although the program is federally run, it relies on states for cooperation for placing the refugees in local communities.
A nationwide network of nonprofit and faith-based organizations meets weekly with federal officials to determine where the refugees will go -- often trying to link them with relatives and communities with low unemployment rates to improve their chances for jobs, officials said.
Times staff writers Kurtis Lee and Seema Mehta contributed to this report from Los Angeles.
For the latest from Congress and 2016 campaign follow @LisaMascaro.
For more, go to www.latimes.com/politics