SALT LAKE CITY — House Republicans fell short Wednesday of enough votes to take a stand against Gov. Gary Herbert's choosing not to join a majority of other governors in refusing to accept Syrian refugees following the recent terrorist attacks.
"He's welcoming the refugees in. And I think that's the wrong step at this point," Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, told a meeting of the House GOP caucus during the Legislature's November interim day.
"We're in a different kind of war," Oda said, that requires refugees to be kept out until there's a good way to vet them. "I think we need to stand with all the other governors who have basically said, 'We’re not going to take them right now.'"
At Oda's invitation, Orem-based security expert Thomas Panuzio described the difficulties of determining whether refugees from war-torn Syrian have been "radicalized" and pose a threat to public safety.
Even though he said it's the federal government's responsibility, Panuzio told the caucus there is a role for the states. He said Utah should be prepared to "go ahead and do our own counterintelligence on them to ensure they are not a threat."
But after a discussion that lasted more than a half-hour, the caucus fell short by a show of hands of the 38-vote majority needed to take a formal position against Herbert's statement about Syrian refugees.
The governor said Monday he had ordered an immediate re-evaluation of the security checks used by the federal government to screen refugees but also pledged the state "will do all we can to ease their suffering without compromising public safety."
Oda initially asked caucus members, who hold a supermajority of the 75 House seats, to sign a yet-to-be drafted letter asking the Republican governor to support a "pause" in accepting refugees.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, suggested the caucus take a formal position, telling members Utah would be in "good company with those who want to see a pause," including new U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Syria, Hughes said, "is a country that's emptying out," creating a huge influx of refugees. While he said he has "all the confidence in the world" in the state's refugee program, this situation is different.
"I've actually met some of the people who have found themselves in the state of Utah. This is an incredibly good program," he said. "What we're seeing happening in real time right now, I don't think is the same as what we've been doing as a state."
But, the speaker cautioned, the state has no real control over refugees.
"Just so you know, eyes wide open, I don't think we get a choice," Hughes said.
However, Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, said he believes there is a "sound constitutional argument to be made to the contrary" and urged the caucus not to be swayed by the rhetoric of the federal government or the "liberal" media.
"This is a moment in history where we can, as a state, particularly since we have 26 other states willing to take the same stand, really push back and reassert our sovereignty as a state," Greene said.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said he has already requested a review of the refugee screening process at next month's Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee meeting.
"Understand that Utah, we don't just accept refugees; we're a settlement state," said Ray, the subcommittee's co-chairman. He predicted that "hundreds and hundreds" of Syrian refugees next year could be joining the 12 already living in Utah.
Others in the caucus, however, raised concerns about supporting a position that was not in writing and spoke of the need to show compassion to refugees.
"I think we need to keep our doors open, our hearts open, for those people who really are being threatened," said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, and if "they need a safe haven, of course we want to help those people. But we can't take everybody."
Oda, who said his mother was held in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, told the caucus Utah does "want to continue bringing in refugees, on the right basis. But our first obligation is to protect people here right now."
House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said later "safety and security" is the issue.
"We're just concerned. We want to be charitable. We want to help those who need help. And we also want to protect Utahns," Dunnigan said. "Our discussion was to have a pause until we can sort this out a little bit. I think that's prudent."
Jon Cox, the governor's spokesman, said Herbert and the House Republicans aren't that far apart. Cox said the governor supports the Syrian refugee bill in Congress dubbed the American SAFE Act that's backed by Ryan.
The governor posted on Twitter Wednesday that "public safety and compassion are not mutually exclusive, but safety must come first" and the act "increases the rigor of the screening process for refugees coming to the U.S. but stops short of an outright ban."