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The fight over Syrian refugees heads to Congress — where it could result in a government shutdown

Paul Ryan's first test as speaker of the House.

Paul Ryan: "Oh, great."
Paul Ryan: "Oh, great."
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Keeping Syrian refugees from entering the US might not have been the issue Paul Ryan would have chosen to kick off his reign as speaker of the House. But when Ryan was elected to the position last month, he made it clear that he wants the House Republican conference to take a "bottom-up" approach to leadership, with members choosing which issues to address and how to do it, rather than setting the agenda himself.

House Republicans, like most Republicans, are currently incensed over the prospect of ISIS terrorists coming into the US as refugees from Syria — and calling for at least a pause, if not a total halt, to Syrian refugee admissions. And Ryan is with them. On Tuesday, he said that the US needed to take a "better safe than sorry" approach to Syrian refugees — and that he'd ask the House to vote on a bill this week to address the problem.

But taking action on the refugee issue — or any issue — in the House of Representatives in 2015 inevitably sets up a dilemma down the road: How far is the speaker willing to go?

The problem is that the bill will inevitably fail. Not this week — there doesn't appear to be much opposition among House Republicans to a "pause" on Syrian refugees — but after that. In the Senate, Democrats have enough votes to filibuster any bill to death — and the Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, hasn't always been interested enough in the House to bring its bills to the floor. Even if it passed the Senate, Ryan and company would have to hope that President Obama would willingly sign a bill to do something that just this week he called downright un-American.

And after it fails, what happens? The subgroup of Republicans who believe it's more important to fight for conservative beliefs than to compromise to keep the government running (the faction of the Republican Party that was most strongly opposed to Ryan's predecessor John Boehner, and therefore will be watching him most closely) will likely insist on adding a refugee ban to every "must-pass" bill the House votes on. The subgroup of Republicans who are sick of government-shutdown brinksmanship will not want that to happen. Paul Ryan will be caught between the two, just like John Boehner was.

Boehner never found a way to please both groups: His tried-and-true tactic was to stand firm on conservative principle until the last minute, and then cave to keep the government open. That's exactly the sort of thing Ryan came into office promising to put a stop to.

The Syrian refugee response will be Ryan's first test: Will "bottom-up" governance be enough to keep everyone satisfied? Or will Ryan, like Boehner, have to do some top-down leadership to get anything done?

What House Republicans might do

There are two questions here: one about this week, and one about next month.

The first question — what refugee bill the House will vote on this week — appears to have been settled ... in a not terribly "bottom-up" fashion. It appears that Ryan will bring up a bill that was just written by a task force convened by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). The bill doesn't explicitly call for a pause in admitting Syrian refugees, but it does require the government to create a new process to "certify" that refugees aren't a security threat.

Since the bill doesn't spell out what the new process should be, Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-CA) says, it's going to create a de facto refugee "pause" while the government figures that out. (The process of designing a new certification process involving several government agencies could take months or years.) That might be enough to get the Obama administration to whip Democrats against the bill. But it might not be enough for the members of the Republican conference who don't trust the government to vet any refugees at all. Either way, the bill won't pass the Senate — but if it upsets the House Freedom Caucus, too, Ryan will really be starting on the wrong foot.

The second question is whether, in addition to voting on a bill this week, House Republicans will also want to add a provision to the next mandatory government spending bill (which it has to pass sometime before December 11) prohibiting the government from spending any money to admit Syrian refugees. That raises a new set of issues — including the threat of a shutdown.

Paul Ryan's first test as House speaker

Pretty much every Republican in Congress — establishment loyalists and conservative insurgents alike — was pleased when Paul Ryan got elected speaker. That wasn't surprising, since he was the only serious candidate in the race — even when he insisted he didn't want the job.

Ryan's election didn't heal the rift in the party between the establishment and conservative wings — or, for that matter, the rift between Republicans in the House and their counterparts in the Senate. At some point during his speakership, he was bound to run into an issue where pleasing the House Freedom Caucus (the Republican conference's most politically conservative and tactically radical members) and pleasing the eyes-on-the-White-House establishment wing of the party were mutually exclusive. As Matt Yglesias wrote when Ryan was sworn in, Republicans have a new speaker, but they don't have a new strategy.

So it was inevitable that Ryan would find himself caught between the party's factions eventually. But the fact that it's happening now, and that it's happening around this particular issue, make things particularly tricky for Paul Ryan — even trickier than they would otherwise be:

1) It's a fight over immigration — the issue on which conservatives trust Ryan the least. Immigration is the issue on which Ryan has most often been out of step with conservatives, and many of them still don't trust him on it. When he was elected speaker, he promised that the House would not pass a bipartisan immigration bill at least until Obama left office: "We can't trust this president on immigration reform."

Unfortunately for Ryan, though, taking comprehensive immigration reform off the table doesn't prevent immigration issues from coming up at all. It's possible that the House Freedom Caucus will be scrutinizing Ryan more closely to see how he responds to the Syrian refugee issue than it would on an issue where they knew he agreed with them.

If Ryan forcefully sides with the members of his conference who want to do as much as possible to keep out Syrian refugees, on the other hand, he'll probably displease another sector of his party: strategists and others who worry about the GOP's ability to compete for swing voters in 2016, and who would prefer that the party avoid doing things Democrats could call racist. (Targeting Muslim refugees probably falls into that category.) Conservative members of Congress seem to believe there's no such thing as voting to block refugees "too many times" (in the words of Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL)), but donors and strategists certainly might.

2) Mitch McConnell is already making his own plan. McConnell has also called for a "pause" in admitting Syrian refugees. But he said Tuesday he was talking to the White House about the issue — not promising to bring up any of the bills that have been introduced in his chamber. Ryan, on the other hand, has made it clear that negotiations between congressional Republicans and the White House "stink" and aren't the way he wants to do business.

Ryan's "bottom-up" strategy and McConnell's White-House-huddle model were going to be an uneasy fit under the best of circumstances. They're likely to disagree about strategy more often than not. But on some issues — defunding Obamacare or Planned Parenthood — they're at least likely to agree on policy. With the Syrian refugee issue, where there are many possible policies Congress could enact, it's unlikely that the bill House Republicans support through their "bottom-up" process will be the same bill McConnell supports.

This puts Ryan squarely between his own conference and his counterpart in the Senate. Without both, it's hard for him to get anything done. House-Senate GOP relations were strained under Boehner; this would definitely start the Ryan era off on the wrong foot.

3) The next opportunity to force a government shutdown is in just a few weeks. Until recently, House Republicans' top priority was defunding Planned Parenthood. A few months before that, it was stopping the Iran deal. Congress has had to take frequent votes to keep the government open and the debt ceiling intact over the past couple of years, but there was always the possibility that an issue could blow over before the next deadline hit.

That is not the case right now. The next funding deadline is December 11, and some House Republicans are already looking past this week's vote, campaigning for Ryan to attach a Syrian refugee ban to the December funding bill.

That move would probably go over the same way every other rider House Republicans have attached to must-pass spending bills in the past two years has gone over: with both parties risking a government shutdown rather than compromising. Speaker Boehner managed to avoid shutdowns for the last two years of his term — which was exactly why the Freedom Caucus was threatening to unseat him even before he resigned. Getting stuck between a government shutdown and a Boehner-style last-minute cave is exactly the position Paul Ryan wants to avoid. It's also exactly where the Syrian refugee drama is likely to end up.

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