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Visa-Waiver Maneuvering Enrages House Republicans

WASHINGTON (CN) - House Republicans grilled government officials Wednesday over visa exemptions they proposed for some travelers under the Iran nuclear deal.

"Let me be clear: nowhere does the law include this authority," Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, thundered at the hearing on border and maritime security, a subcommittee within the House Homeland Security Committee.

"You're not allowed to break the law on a case-by-case basis," McCaul added. "When you're the president, you're not supposed to break the law, and certainly not for a state sponsor of terror with American blood on its hands."

The two-hour hearing came in the wake of assurances by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to his Iranian counterpart that the efforts Congress took late last year to toughen border security would not interfere with legitimate Iranian business interests, keeping in line with the parameters of the Iran nuclear deal.

Congress had pushed the legislation through quickly, with bipartisan support, after attacks linked to the Islamic State in Paris, France, and San Bernardino, Calif., spurred concerns over foreign fighters exploiting benefits intended for legitimate travel or business travelers.

Implemented on Jan. 21, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Prevention Act of 2015 bars travelers who visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria since March 2011 from obtaining visa waivers.

The law also targets dual citizens of those countries, even if they also hold citizenship from a visa-waiver country.

Undermining these provisions, however, Kerry noted recently that the United States could still put visa requirements on ice for travelers who visited Iran for business purposes after July 14, 2015 - the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal.

It could also extend exemptions to humanitarian-aid workers and journalists.

Republicans slammed members of Homeland Security and the State Department at today's hearing for contravening the intent and plain language of the law.

"We need to understand, particularly at a time when we know that there are some crafty would-be terrorists eager to find new ways to work around security enhancements in the Visa Waiver Program, why the administration has chosen to be so public about how the DHS Secretary may exercise his discretion," Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said.

McCaul said he was "deeply disturbed" by the Obama administration's interpretation of the law, adding that the president has placed the best interests of Iran over the national security interests of the United States.

Hillary Batjer Johnson with the State Department countered that the exceptions accord with the law.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has the authority to grant exceptions to the new visa-waiver law when it is "in the law enforcement or national security interests of the United States," said Batjer Johnson, a deputy coordinator in the counterterrorism bureau.

Distinguishing the exemptions from "blanket waivers," she added that they will be "narrowly tailored to national-security interests."

Categories for exemptions will include business travelers, humanitarian-aid workers and journalists, Batjer Johnson said.

For several committee members, however, this maneuvering smacks of an end-run around lawmakers who rejected the same categories of exemptions that Obama's administration proposed during late 2015 negotiations.

"The White House negotiated in very bad faith," said Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., who authored the bill.

Batjer Johnson denied this, noting that several countries express concern about their citizens being treated as national-security threats.

She noted that the law also left the State Department and Homeland Security to deal with confusion and concerns from foreign partners about how the law would work.

In addition to concerns about travel restrictions the law would place on dual nationals, Batjer Johnson said others saw the law as discriminatory.

This compelled Homeland Security Secretary Johnson to exercise the discretion that the text of the new law bestowed upon him, she added.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., accused the Obama administration of "lawlessness," and said the State Department and Homeland Security were rationalizing "getting around the intent of the American Congress."

Batjer Johnson and R. Gil Kerlikowske, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, both denied breaking the law and said that was not the intent of the State Department of Homeland Security.

Kerlikowske said no waivers have yet been granted, and none have been requested. He could not give a time frame for how long it would take to vet someone who requested an exception, but said that Homeland Security "will push forward and implement processes to make sure applicants are properly vetted."

Batjer Johnson said the State Department is still deliberating how to administer exceptions, but reiterated that U.S. national security remains the department's top priority.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, expressed discomfort with the implication that the State Department and Homeland Security had willfully broken the law, but said they needed to hear the concerns of the committee.

"I have empathy for humanitarian purposes," Jackson Lee said.

The congresswoman asked both witnesses to return with a detailed, restricted and point-by-point briefing of how they would assess and vet journalists, business travelers and humanitarian workers in a closed setting.

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