WASHINGTON — Republicans on Monday blocked two bills by California Democrats to rescind President Trump’s 90-day travel ban on people from seven majority-Muslim countries, deflecting for now a Democratic resistance to the new administration that has snowballed in one week from cautious skepticism to widespread alarm.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, both offered legislation to rescind the order. Feinstein also promised another bill that would amend underlying immigration law to add brakes on “the president’s authority to bar classes of people from entering the United States.”
GOP leaders can prevent the bills from coming to a vote in either chamber, but Democrats hope that by simply proposing them, they can exploit Republican divisions over Trump’s order.
The Trump administration said there was no reason for the controversy and strongly defended the order.
“Three hundred and twenty-five thousand people flew into this country from airports, and 109 people were affected and slowed down in their travel,” press secretary Sean Spicer told MSNBC. “I understand that is an inconvenience, but at the end of the day that is a small price to pay as opposed to somebody losing their life because a terrorist attack was admitted.”
The order, issued Friday, suspends admissions of immigrants from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia. It puts a 120-day hold on admissions of refugees from all countries and suspends Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. indefinitely.
Later Monday, acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, ordered the Justice Department not to defend the executive order in court.
The Justice Department has a legal obligation “to always seek justice and stand for what is right,” Yates said in a letter to department lawyers explaining her decision.
Trump promptly fired Yates and replaced her with Dana Boente, a U.S. attorney from Virginia. Yates is “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration” and “has betrayed the Department of Justice,” the White House said in a news release.
Boente will defend Trump’s order until the Senate confirms his nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general. The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a vote on Tuesday.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York sought a vote on Feinstein’s bill Monday, but Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas objected, blocking immediate Senate consideration. And Republican leaders in the House declined to take up Lofgren’s bill.
Democrats would need eight Republicans to break ranks in the Senate and 56 in the House. Despite some Republicans’ misgivings about Trump’s order, there was no immediate indication of a GOP defection on that scale.
“This is a matter of political will,” Lofgren said. Several Republicans “have been critical of the executive order. We’ll see what they’re willing to do.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi led a Democratic protest in front of the Supreme Court on Monday evening, warning, “We are witnessing a historic injustice unfold.”
Obama weighed in, saying through a spokeswoman that “American values are at stake.” Arriving just nine days into the new administration, the statement was Obama’s first since leaving office.
A global backlash against the order that unfolded over the weekend continued Monday, and the administration faced multiple lawsuits, judicial stays and protests at airports across the country. There was dismay from Silicon Valley executives and other business chiefs whom Trump courted just last week at two White House meetings. The civil rights group Muslim Advocates called on business executives, including Elon Musk of Fremont’s Tesla Motors, who are serving on a White House advisory council to step down.
Among Republicans who voiced concern about the order, attention focused on how thoroughly it had been vetted. The order bypassed Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, whose department oversees border and customs agencies, and was largely written by top Trump advisers Stephen Miller and Steven Bannon, both strident foes of expansive immigration.
GOP Rep. David Valadao of Hanford (Kings County) said he supports stronger screening of travelers but said the issue is complex and “should not be addressed through hasty, unclear executive actions.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., defended the ban, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said it could hamper cooperation from Muslim-majority countries in the terrorism fight, adding that it would be up to the courts to decide if it has “gone too far.”
“It’s clear from just the first 48 hours of this that this is an absolutely disastrous policy,” said Michael Breen, an Army combat veteran and head of the Truman National Security Project, a group that supports nonmilitary approaches to resolving conflict. Breen called the Feinstein and Lofgren legislation “the real test. Are Republican leaders on the Hill going to think for themselves, or are they going to follow Donald Trump off a cliff on this one? I guarantee you nobody is going to forget.”
Many congressional Republicans, however, said the executive order was fundamentally sound.
Tulare Republican Devin Nunes, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, issued a statement Sunday saying he has repeatedly warned that “refugee flows from certain war-torn regions pose a serious national security threat to the United States,” calling Trump’s order “a common-sense security measure to prevent terror attacks on the homeland.”
Nunes said “accommodations” should be made for green card holders — lawful permanent residents — and interpreters and other people who have assisted the U.S. military overseas, emphasizing the temporary nature of the ban for all groups except Syrian refugees.
With Republicans firmly in control of both chambers of Congress, Democrats have few tools to combat the administration legislatively. But Democrats said they intend to leverage their unity and harness public opinion, arguing that the administration cannot continue stumbling from issue to issue in a crisis atmosphere and maintain the strategic coherence necessary to accomplish fundamental policy changes.
Chronicle staff writer Bob Egelko contributed to this report.
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