McConnell silent on floor as gun debate rages

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not mention the raging debate over gun control when he opened the Senate o...

Posted: Mar 1, 2018 5:46 PM
Updated: Mar 1, 2018 5:46 PM

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not mention the raging debate over gun control when he opened the Senate on Thursday, a day after President Donald Trump created widespread confusion about what policies he wants Congress to pursue at an extraordinary televised meeting with bipartisan lawmakers at the White House.

At the rambling and far-reaching session, Trump appeared to embrace more Democratic proposals than Republican. That left lawmakers from both parties uncertain about what their next steps should be, especially as they warily await to see if Trump reverses course on any of those controversial positions after sleeping on them.

McConnell, cautious by nature, is aware that's possible. He has witnessed Trump do it before on immigration and other issues, and may be keeping his powder dry to see how things shake out.

That might help explain why the veteran Kentucky senator, who has carefully navigated the politically treacherous gun debate since the mass shooting at a high school in Florida two weeks ago, declined to offer any words or direction about the policy path he would like the GOP-controlled House and Senate to take -- even though his colleagues and many Americans are anxious to know his intentions.

RELATED: The 43 most eye-popping lines from Donald Trump's 'surreal' gathering on guns

Instead, he spoke on the floor briefly about the late evangelist Billy Graham, whose body was laying in honor in the Capitol Rotunda, and more extensively about tax reform, the key legislative accomplishment that just passed Congress.

Graham was a "remarkable man whose preaching inspired millions worldwide, who counseled presidents and world leaders across generations, and whom an entire nation came to know as 'America's pastor,'" McConnell said.

McConnell and other Republicans clearly were caught off guard by the freewheeling White House meeting Wednesday, when Trump seemed to dismiss their concerns about raising the age from 18 to 21 to buy some rifles, expanding background checks to all purchases and doing away with due process rights for people who are turned down from buying gun after being rejected through a background check.

McConnell had never pushed for a full-throated debate on gun control, despite the recent spate of mass shootings. Earlier this week, he tried to quickly approve a bill making modest changes to background checks.

On Monday, he asked for unanimous consent from all senators to vote on, with limited debate, a measure to improve reporting compliance with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System through financial incentives, a bill co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and the second ranking GOP member in the chamber, and Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat. But the plan -- which is referred to as "Fix NICS" -- got bogged down when conservative Republicans raised objections to it.

Now McConnell and GOP leaders must figure out what to do next, balancing the President's call for action against their own heartfelt concerns about limiting the Second Amendment rights of their constituents and the political backlash they might face if they voted for Trump's proposed restrictions.

McConnell discussed the difficulty of passing gun legislation at a news conference Tuesday.

"We have been down this path before. There are bipartisan differences about how to address this issue that continually snag every effort," he said. "So what Sen. Cornyn has suggested is that we take something we all agree on -- not in any way claiming it's a panacea but at least show some progress toward dealing with one element of the problem."

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