Retired Lt. Col. Steve Russell may only be a freshman in Congress, but he's suddenly finding that his military experience has put him in a potentially powerful position, on one of the most explosive issues Congress has confronted this year.
In response to the Islamic State's most recent terror attacks in Paris, Congress sent a strong message to President Obama on Thursday, passing H.R. 4038, the American SAFE Act of 2015. The legislation that would add to and toughen the nation's screening measures for Syrian and Iraqi refugees hoping to resettle in the United States.
Not only did the House approve the measure, it did so with a veto-proof majority...barely. The margin was one vote, and it came from Russell.
"I was very torn on this issue," Russell explained in an interview Friday. "I cast a 'no' vote on the board, because I just felt we were going down the wrong path."
Russell, (R) 5th District, says there's far more to the current screening process than most members of Congress, and most Americans, realize. He says he is familiar with the process because his military experience put him in contact with agencies that assist with the resettlement process.
"I've worked with the International Organization for Migration. I've worked with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees)," said Russell. "I've worked with refugees on battlefields. I understand the system. I know how it works."
Russell says the Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security all currently help vet refugees selected for resettlement, a process that takes, on average, 18 to 24 months, and predominantly helps young children, women, and families.
"We should be welcoming these people and not turning them away," said Russell. "The Statue of Liberty has to have a torch, not a stiff-arm, with perhaps another gesture, we cannot be that America."
Russell was sufficiently upset about the House measure that he broke with his party Thursday, at first, and voted 'no,' But then, he says, Republican leadership swarmed him and explained that they were one vote short of a veto-proof majority.
"And they said, 'What would it take to change your vote?'" recounted Russell. "And I said, 'You give me a seat at the table on all future discussions on this issue...and I'll consider furthering the process.'"
Russell did give them the 'yes' vote leadership wanted and, at the same time, believes he secured a role for himself in future discussions on the issue. He hopes to be able to exert some influence at that time.
"Patrick Henry--he did not say, 'Give me security or give me death,'" Russell stated. "He said 'Give me liberty...' We can be vigilant. We can be who we are as Americans without giving up fundamentally what we believe and what we are as a republic."