GOP scrambles for response to Obama's gun control actions

Greg Nash

Congressional Republicans are scrambling for a way to halt President Obama’s new unilateral actions on gun control.

One powerful appropriator, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), has threatened to block federal funding for the Department of Justice unless the president’s actions are reversed. But last year’s trillion-dollar spending deal already funds the department through September, limiting the GOP’s leverage.

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The courts are another option. GOP lawmakers are expected to sue to stop Obama’s gun control proposals from taking effect, a step they’ve taken in the past in fights over executive power. But the legal route almost certainly would result in a drawn-out process that might not be resolved until well after Obama leaves office in early 2017.

Republicans could force a showdown with Democrats sooner by trying to attach a provision rolling back the gun actions to important legislation. One option would be the Federal Aviation Administration policy bill that Congress must pass by March 31; a second would be legislation to ease Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.

Several House Republicans are expected to introduce legislation to combat the executive actions in the coming days, though Obama certainly would veto such bills.

Faced with limited options, the GOP is likely to attack Obama’s actions on several fronts, sources said.

“We will be using every tool in the toolkit to stop him,” said one senior Republican lawmaker who is close to leadership. “All options are on the table.”

Surrounded by gun violence victims and gun control advocates, Obama on Tuesday unveiled a package of executive actions that calls for expanding background checks, hiring more FBI staffers to process background checks for gun sales, and requiring dealers to notify federal authorities if guns they ship are lost in transit.

But two pieces of Obama’s plan would need Congress to act in the next spending bill, by providing an additional $500 million for mental health services and funding for 200 new agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

As Obama laid out his proposal at the White House, Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanHouse GOP tax plan would cost T: analyst A 100-day challenge for tax reform Coal’s clout in Congress to take a hit MORE (R-Wis.) and his leadership team were huddling in Annapolis, Md., plotting out the legislative agenda for 2016. Ideas to counter the actions on guns were discussed during the meetings, though no final decisions were made, sources said.

Privately, some GOP lawmakers said they didn’t think Obama’s actions on guns amount to much. “Frankly, our initial review of the president’s orders is there is not a lot of substance there,” said one Republican who requested anonymity.

But the lawmaker said party leaders are under enormous pressure from the National Rifle Association and other gun rights activists to take a stand against Obama.

In a statement, Ryan, a gun owner and avid deer hunter, blasted Obama’s executive actions, calling them “a form of intimidation that undermines liberty” and violates the Second Amendment. The Speaker vowed that Congress would “conduct vigilant oversight” and predicted the actions would “no doubt be challenged in the courts.”

Still, Ryan acknowledged that electing a GOP president this fall would be the easiest way to reverse Obama’s actions.

“Ultimately, everything the president has done can be overturned by a Republican president,” he said, “which is another reason we must win in November.”

Republicans on Tuesday repeatedly pointed to legislative efforts to reform the nation’s mental healthcare system as the best way to help reduce the number of mass shootings.

A bill by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) includes proposals such as creating an assistant secretary for mental health and increasing the number of available psychiatric hospital beds. 

But the measure has moved slowly through the committee process since it was introduced in June. Murphy took to the House floor last month to plead for a vote on his legislation.

On Tuesday, Murphy expressed skepticism toward Obama’s proposal to increase funding for mental health services.

“There is a big difference between funding ‘mental health programs’ and enacting reforms addressing serious mental illness. More money into our disastrously failed and antiquated system will only result in more lives lost,” he said in a statement.

Republicans are also eyeing new legislation to halt the president’s actions. In a subdued statement, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteLobbying world Overnight Tech: Judiciary leaders question internet transition plan | Clinton to talk tech policy | Snowden's robot | Trump's big digital push Overnight Finance: Anxiety grows over Brexit vote | Investors prefer Trump to Clinton in poll | Key chairman open to censuring IRS chief MORE (R-Va.) said that his panel will “closely monitor the Administration’s actions and consider whether legislation is needed to further protect Americans’ constitutional rights.”

Goodlatte has come under fire for not doing more to curb shootings in the wake of an incident near his district in which a reporter and a cameraman were fatally shot during a live TV broadcast. Vice President Biden will be appearing Wednesday for an interview about Obama’s gun actions on that same station.

Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), who is running for Senate, plans to introduce a bill on Tuesday that would nullify any executive actions that undermine congressional authority or the Second Amendment. It would also block funds to implement said executive actions and establish legal standing for Congress or local governments to issue a court challenge.

One GOP presidential candidate, Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulTrump hires Rand Paul's former digital director: report Trump flexes new digital muscle Republicans question Trump's trip to Scotland MORE (R-Ky.), introduced identical legislation last month.

Republicans have had success with lawsuits against the president. Obama’s post-midterm election executive actions to halt deportations for millions of illegal immigrants have stalled in the courts over the last year.

A federal judge also ruled late last year that Republicans could move forward with their lawsuit against the president regarding implementation of ObamaCare.  

And in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Obama had exceeded his authority by filling several vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board during a congressional recess; Senate Republicans had sued to overturn the appointments. 

Asked about Culberson’s threats, a spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) would only say that the full panel “will take a careful look at the funding as we move forward with the next budget cycle.”

But Rep. Robert AderholtRobert AderholtHouse panel approves agriculture, energy spending bills GOP scrambles for response to Obama's gun control actions Lawmakers press for Christians to be included in ISIS genocide designation MORE (R-Ala.), who, like Culberson, chairs an Appropriations subcommittee, made a full-throated endorsement of his colleague’s defunding efforts, according to Aderholt spokesman Brian Rell.

Aderholt expects House Republicans will sue Obama over the gun actions, but he also plans to phone Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange to see if he’s interested in filing a state-based lawsuit against Obama, similar to the one Texas and 25 other states filed to stop his immigration actions.   

“This would be executive overreach Round 2, but for gun control,” Rell said.

—This story was updated at 8:12 p.m.