Action on guns and immigration screeches to a halt in Congress

Legislating on Capitol Hill is quickly screeching to a halt, despite loud calls for action on guns and immigration. 

Even as student survivors of last month's mass shooting at a Florida high school clamor for action on gun control and young “Dreamers” converge on Congress to protest their possible deportation, Republicans in the House are pivoting to messaging bills and away from the hot-button issues that have dominated the first two months of the year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellYou just can't keep good health policy down Trump threatens to veto omnibus over lack of wall funding, DACA fix Democrats desperate for a win hail spending bill MORE (R-Ky.) signaled that his chamber would not take up gun reform this week. Instead, the Senate will take up a banking reform bill, even after President TrumpDonald John TrumpScarborough mocks 'Deflection Don' over transgender troop ban Pelosi condemns Trump's 'cowardly, disgusting' ban on transgender troops Trump moves to ban most transgender people from serving in military MORE challenged lawmakers to pass a sweeping background checks bill in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. 

On immigration, a federal court order blocking Trump’s effort to end an Obama-era program protecting Dreamers, immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, has taken the pressure off Congress to act.

Now lawmakers are not expected to touch the issue before Election Day in November. 

Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenate approves .3 trillion spending bill, sending to Trump GOP senator threatened to hold up bill over provision to honor late political rival: report Overnight Health Care: House passes .3T omnibus | Bill boosts funds for NIH, opioid treatment | Senators spar over ObamaCare fix | 'Right to Try' bill heads to the Senate MORE (R-Texas) said he’s not sure there’s enough time to tackle Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan — a centerpiece of the president’s 2018 agenda. And there is little sign of renewing the effort to repeal ObamaCare.

The inaction is likely to disappoint activists hoping that Washington might move on gun control and protecting Dreamers.

But it will also disappoint Republicans who had hoped to make progress on their conservative priorities after December's big win on tax cuts.

“Going into 2018, members’ hopes were high that we would ride on the momentum of tax reform to repeal more of ObamaCare or reign in entitlement spending,” said one senior GOP aide. “After the Republican retreat [in February], that momentum was brought to a halt with talk of lowering expectations. Not only would neither of those big ticket items be done, but we would not even try to do reconciliation or a budget.”

GOP leaders are scrambling to prevent a Democratic wave in this fall’s midterm elections.

With that in mind, GOP leaders are loath to consider votes on issues that could prove difficult for vulnerable, centrist Republicans. 

At the same time, conservative lawmakers are pressing for a more aggressive election-year agenda, fearful of the possibility of primary challenges emerging from the right.

“Tensions are building as members express concern that they have tough elections ahead of them and these concerns are not being taken seriously,” the GOP aide added. “Leadership is telling members to just keep talking about tax reform and it will all be fine.

“Members aren’t buying it.”

Republican leaders canceled House votes last Wednesday and Thursday while the coffin of renowned evangelical pastor Billy Graham lay in honor beneath the Capitol Rotunda.

Democrats noted that the House had staged votes during similar ceremonies in the past, including one honoring the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) in 2012. 

“The vote cancellation announcement cited an apparent tradition that is unfamiliar to me,” said longtime Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellMcCabe firing roils Washington Dem lawmaker: Trump is vandalizing our democracy Pelosi says she’s not hurting Democrat campaigns: ‘We won' MORE (D-N.J.). “Congress faces numerous pressing problems.”

During its brief, 24-hour session this week, the House did manage to pass a bill making it easier for victims and prosecutors to sue websites linked to sex trafficking. But the legislation was largely overshadowed by the political turmoil gripping the White House.

It’s unclear to many GOP lawmakers and aides what exactly will get done before Election Day. The House will be on recess for 14 weeks between now and Nov. 6. That includes the customary recess for the entire month of August.

Strangely enough, the most pressing, must-pass issue facing Congress — a massive omnibus bill that would fund the government for the rest of the 2018 fiscal year — might be the easiest lift. 

Though House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiPelosi condemns Trump's 'cowardly, disgusting' ban on transgender troops Trump threatens to veto omnibus over lack of wall funding, DACA fix Congress votes to expand deficit — and many in GOP are unhappy MORE (D-Calif.) last month had opposed a similar budget bill, many Democrats say they have no appetite to threaten another government shutdown after a three-day funding lapse in January over immigration.

And Pelosi, a former appropriator, said Thursday that she has faith in the bipartisan lawmakers negotiating the spending package to come up with a fair proposal by the March 23 deadline, suggesting she would support the measure absent any “poison pills.” 

“I know, left to their own devices, the appropriators can work it out. It's what comes from on high in terms of these poison pills that are problematic,” Pelosi said. “We'll see just what the poison pills are as we go forward.”

Even before the Supreme Court declined to take up the Trump administration’s challenge to a lower court ruling preventing it from unwinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, some GOP leaders had argued that Trump’s March 5 deadline for action was irrelevant. 

“There is no deadline on DACA,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHouse Republicans grumble about the 'worst process ever' House easily passes .3 trillion spending bill Trump can save Republicans and restore sanity to California in 2018 MORE (R-Calif.) said after the lower court’s decision.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat representing a border district, is not holding his breath for Republicans to act, citing both the emotional baggage that comes with immigration policy and the failure of several DACA bills in the Senate last month.

“I said in 2009, when we were working on the health-care bill, I said, ‘If you guys think this is emotional, wait until we start talking on immigration,’” Cuellar said.

“Basically, people are starting to, in many ways, lose faith that Congress can actually come up with a solution.”

The gun debate in many ways is more immediate, having been pushed into the national spotlight by the Valentine’s Day shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the student protests that have followed and Trump’s insistence that Congress step in to enact tough new gun controls. On Friday, two people were shot and killed in a Central Michigan University dormitory in what was described as a domestic dispute.

Still, GOP leaders in both chambers are all but ignoring Trump’s entreaties for tougher gun laws, blaming the violence on holes in mental-health treatment and, in the Parkland case, law enforcement failures.

"None of these bills are going through Congress without Speaker Ryan and Sen. McConnell’s approval,” said conservative Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieHouse Republicans grumble about the 'worst process ever' 25 House Republicans defy leadership in key spending bill vote House conservatives to introduce amendments to omnibus MORE (R-Ky.), who chairs the House Second Amendment Caucus and is vehemently opposed to tougher gun laws.

Even a narrowly tailored bill to encourage more reporting to the FBI’s background check database has hit a wall after House Republicans attached language expanding concealed-carry rights nationwide — a provision that’s a non-starter with Senate Democrats.

It’s led to a lingering sense of resignation among gun reformers that, despite the recent tragedy and Trump’s call to action, Congress isn’t ready to stick its neck out for reforms.

“My money is always on inaction with this Congress,” said a former Democratic leadership aide. “I don’t expect they’re going to jump in to do anything.”