Washington (AFP) - Congress is expected to reform a visa-waiver program as part of a sweeping spending bill, but is unlikely to restrict Syrian refugee flow into the United States, top Democrats said Tuesday.
US lawmakers are in the final stages of negotiation on a $1.1 trillion spending package for 2016 that would avert a government shutdown before they break for the holidays.
It is shaping up as a catch-all measure for several pieces of legislation, and top Senate Democrat Harry Reid said it was likely it would include a bill that reforms the program allowing millions of international visitors to travel to the United States without a visa.
"We've learned that there could be some issues on it. We're trying to resolve those," Reid said.
But he stressed that House Speaker Paul Ryan has made assurances that the spending bill, known as an "omnibus," would not include language on refugees -- a controversial topic for Americans following the terror attacks in Paris, in which some of the assailants are believed to have abused Europe's refugee system to enter France.
As part of efforts to reform the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), the House of Representatives last week voted overwhelmingly to make it more difficult for visitors to Iraq, Syria and countries listed as supporting terrorism to travel visa-free to US shores.
The bill was backed by the White House.
Under the measure, citizens of VWP-participating nations who are also dual nationals from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan would not be eligible to participate in the program.
Lawmakers are revisiting the legislation following an outcry from rights groups which warn that such moves would unfairly discriminate against people based on their ethnic origins.
Four senators, including Republicans Jeff Flake and Dean Heller, wrote congressional leaders expressing their concerns with the dual nationality provisions.
The new rules would exclude some people from the program regardless of their actual travel history, which would "no doubt court reciprocal treatment of similar US-citizen dual nationals from our European allies," the senators wrote.
EU Ambassador to the United States David O'Sullivan said in a Monday editorial in The Hill, on behalf of EU member state ambassadors, that port-of-origin biometric checks and restrictions on some dual nationals would be "counterproductive," hurt economies on both sides of the Atlantic, and likely trigger reciprocal measures.
Number two Senate Democrat Dick Durbin said the dual-nationals issue is "one of the elements that's being addressed" in the final negotiations.
Government funding expires Wednesday night at midnight, and the House and Senate will need to pass a stopgap measure lasting a few days to keep the lights on during the last-minute haggling.
Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell said he anticipated that the bill, along with a large measure extending dozens of tax breaks, would be finalized by late Tuesday and voted on by Thursday.