The gun debate that wasn't

It turns out nothing -- not even President Donald Trump -- can change Congress on guns.But after a week of tal...

Posted: Mar 2, 2018 8:17 AM
Updated: Mar 2, 2018 8:17 AM

It turns out nothing -- not even President Donald Trump -- can change Congress on guns.

But after a week of talk, after students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School personally lobbied lawmakers, and the President continued his public push to overhaul the country's gun laws, members of Congress departed Washington on Thursday afternoon without having voted on a single gun bill and without any plans in the near future to take action on one.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Thursday afternoon that the plan for the week ahead was to vote on a bill to change the Dodd-Frank banking law, not to tackle even modest changes to gun laws.

Asked if the Senate will take up gun legislation next week, McConnell said, "No, we're going to the Crapo bill next week," he said referencing the banking bill from Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo.

On changes to gun laws he added, "we'd love to do that at some point. I'm hoping there is a way forward."

The lack of momentum on gun control came as Capitol Hill was still confounded Thursday following a wide-ranging, televised meeting at the White House on guns where Trump challenged long-held conservative positions on guns and called out the National Rifle Association by name.

Trump asked for an increase in the age at which individuals could buy rifles, embraced a background check bill that expanded checks for gun show and internet sales and told House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana that a concealed carry bill that had passed out of the House -- and was a key leverage point for the GOP -- wouldn't pass in the Senate.

But none of it seemed to translate into the Republican Party following Trump's lead.

For Republicans, the meeting undercut a central talking point they'd held all week. There was an answer in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Florida: It was a combination of school safety measures and a modest bill that incentivized state and federal agencies to enter more records into the country's background check database called "Fix NICs."

On Wednesday, Trump insisted on more, cutting against the grain of GOP orthodoxy on the Second Amendment and playing right into Democrats' talking points that Fix NICs wasn't enough on gun control.

Behind the scenes, aides were fuming, arguing Trump had taken the party too far. One Republican noted that Trump's refusal to slam the door on the assault-rifle-style weapons ban when Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, brought it up was "malpractice from the standpoint of our guys."

On the record, members were more judicious.

"I'm not going to criticize the President," said Sen. Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho who wasn't in the White House meeting. "The people who were there characterized it as a brainstorming session. Those are usually done best privately."

Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas and the chamber's second-ranking GOP member, said if "Fix NICs" made it to the floor, it would get "80 votes" even if Trump has insists he wants more.

There are still some discussions happening behind the scenes, but any gun debate would need the blessing of leadership and the time for action is running short. Next week, the Senate will debate a banking bill and then quickly approaching is a deadline on a funding bill.

Sens. Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, have been trying to rework and build more consensus for their more comprehensive background check bill they pushed for five years ago that would have expanded the checks to gun shows and internet sales. But few Republicans were willing to go on the record supporting it yet.

"I am convinced there is a bipartisan product that could come out of this process and it would be on keeping dangerous people from getting guns," said Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio. "I am hopeful we can get through this thing with something that actually helps."

Asked if he backed Manchin-Toomey, however, Portman said he'd need to see a final product.

Democrats expressed disappointment that more wasn't done at the end of a week where so much national momentum was behind them.

"This is a moment when America wants us to act," said New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker. "Fundamental to the purpose of government is the common defense and we're just not doing it."

Democrats had been cautiously optimistic Wednesday after the White House meeting that Trump's discussions would lead to some real progress, but it wasn't clear Trump had the power to shift his party on an issue as core to them as guns.

"I want to be encouraged, but I've seen the movie before," said Washington Sen. Patty Murray, a member of Democratic leadership, "I want to see him go out there and get Republican votes for what he proposed yesterday. When he does that, that's when I'll be impressed."

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