Homeland Security
Under a newly approved bill, the US Department of Homeland Security would have the ability to suspend any of the 38 member countries from the US visa waiver programme.SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation imposing new restrictions on a visa waiver programme that welcomes an estimated 20 million people in the US each year. The legislation, which was approved 407 to 19, united both parties in an impressive bipartisan effort.

According to The Washington Post, the bill would increase information sharing between the US and 38 countries whose passport holders are allowed to visit the US without getting a visa. The legislation would also restrict travel into the US by foreign travelers who have visited Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan since 1 March 2011 without first attaining a visa. The White House supports the new bill, which is expected to be included into a must-pass spending bill, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The bill would allow the US Department of Homeland Security to suspend any participating country from the programme that did not provide terrorism-related information to the US in a timely manner. Travelers would be required to have passports that contain biometric and other data to make them fraud-resistant.

"We live in a free and open society," Republican Representative Candice Miller of Michigan said. Miller, the author of the measure, continued: "But you have the enemies of freedom who are using our freedoms against us. We have to think clearly about what we can do to mitigate any vulnerability that we have."

The Washington Post reported that the strong bipartisan support could light a fire under efforts to make changes to the programme in the omnibus spending package, which needs to be finalised before government funding expires on 11 December. The House measure received the support of the US Travel Association, The Post noted.

However, the House bill is much different than its Senate version, which was authored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (Democrat from California) and Jeff Flake (Republican from Arizona). The Senate bill would ban individuals who traveled to Iraq or Syria from using the programme for five years.

While House Democrats staged a protest over the rejection of their measure to ban individuals on the no-fly list from purchasing guns, Democratic leaders urged their members to back the visa waiver programme. California Democrat Zoe Lofgren said that an earlier vote to suspend Syrian and Iraqi refugees "showed the country and this body at its worst" but added that the later bill "makes sensible improvements to the security of the visa waiver programme."