House Speaker Paul Ryan called for an immediate pause of the Syrian refugee program on Tuesday until there is a guarantee that ISIS isn’t infiltrating it, nodding to an outcry from Republican governors and presidential candidates after the Paris attacks.
“We cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion,” Ryan said. “This is a moment where it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.”
Ryan, who has been under pressure from his party’s conservative wing to block all Syrian refugees—particularly Muslims—made the announcement at the weekly Republican leadership press conference.
Ryan said he supports the larger refugee program but that it would be “prudent” to put the program on hold to ensure that the United States isn’t importing terrorists.
When asked if pausing the refugee program should be placed in an omnibus spending bill, Ryan said “we don’t want to wait that long.”
The House Speaker already set up a task force to look at the refugee issue over the weekend. In a radio interview on Monday, Ryan sounded open to using the power of the purse to influence the issue, but that could theoretically provoke a shutdown showdown with President Barack Obama, who strongly defended the refugee program on Monday.
Congress faces a Dec. 11 deadline to fund the government.
Senior Obama administration officials defended the program in a conference call with reporters. The officials said the refugee program has been running successfully since the mid-1970s, with more than 3 million people resettled so far.
Syrian refugees get the most rigorous screening. The process includes a variety of background checks and interviews across several agencies, the officials said.
And state governors do not have the authority to block the refugees from entering the country. Refugees are “protected by the Constitution and federal law,” the official said. “He or she is also free to move anywhere in the country.”
That said, the same official said that the federal government does consult with local and state authorities and that support is important.
“We don’t want to send refugees anywhere where they would not be welcome,” the official said.
But right now, they “are welcomed almost everywhere in the United States.”
Ryan added that the ultimate solution is to defeat ISIS and said President Obama needs to provide a strategy to do so. Asked if that should include sending U.S. ground troops into the fight, Ryan said nothing should be ruled out at this point.