After Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK) gave an impassioned speech on the House floor Wednesday condemning the “xenophobic” backlash against Syrian refugees, a strange thing happened. Russell proceeded to vote for the bill clamping down on Syrian refugees entering the United States, which Russell had just called a “knee-jerk” reaction to the attacks in Paris.
So what happened? Why the change of heart?
In an exclusive interview Friday with TPM, Russell revealed what transpired.
Russell says he initially cast a vote against the SAFE Act, the House bill passed on Thursday that would expand the vetting process for refugees from Syria and Iraq.
“That created a bit of a ruckus,” Russell said.
His colleagues then “surrounded” him on the floor and asked him to switch his vote since his approval would give the bill a veto-proof majority, according to Russell. He demanded that he have “seat at the table on all future discussions on this issue,” and once an agreement was met, Russell switched his vote.
The bill passed 289-137. Among other things it would require the heads of federal agencies to approve the background checks for refugees from Syria and Iraq.
Russell told TPM that “nobody” believes the bill passed on Thursday will be the final legislation, and that the veto-proof majority would give the House leverage when negotiating with the Senate.
In his speech, Russell said of the bill that if lawmakers react with “xenophobic and knee-jerk policy, the enemy wins.” Russell told TPM Friday that he was not criticizing his party in his floor speech, but that he thinks Congress needs to “take a sober look at this issue.” He called for a more measured response to security concerns.
“I understand the genuine and heartfelt concerns that people have. I know they are motivated by passions that are real, but we can’t let those passions damage our liberties and who we are as Americans,” he said.
He said that he has seen some use the issue for “political leverage” over the past few days, and that lawmakers are reacting to concerns from constituents.
“Americans are scared. That’s why you saw such an overwhelming vote — a veto-proof vote — on the floor that transcended parties, because the constituents are telling their representatives, ‘You need to put a stop to this.’ But what does ‘put a stop’ mean?”
He said that the U.S. needs to “play offense” with the Islamic State. “But in the interim, some want to go to, I believe, a dangerous measure of completely closing off our doors and who we are as a country. I think we have to be very, very cautious before we go down the path,” Russell added.
The congressman noted that the U.S. vetting process for refugees from Syria is rigorous, and said that the government needs to explain to the American people how the process works. He said that he is open to filling in gaps to the refugee vetting process and the visa-waiver program, but that Congress needs to have a discussion first.
“Now people are saying, ‘Yes, but they can’t guarantee 100 percent.’ Well, we can’t guarantee 100 percent that the kids that we raise in our own home are gonna turn out to do the things that we would train them to do,” Russell told TPM.
“I don’t disparage anyone — not Republicans, not Democrats, not the President. I don’t disparage anyone in trying to find the best way to solve this issue. If there are differences, then let’s work those out. But what we can’t do is retreat in the face of ISIS and give up who we are as Americans,” he said. “Let’s not become the America that ISIS wants us to be.”