Senate Republicans may defy NRA on guns

Senate Republicans may defy NRA on guns
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans are expected to bring a bipartisan gun control bill to a vote this week despite opposition to the measure from the National Rifle Association and other conservative groups.

The measure, spearheaded by centrist GOP Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash This week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE (Maine), would block people on two terrorist watchlists from buying guns.

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Sources in both parties on Tuesday said the Collins legislation is gaining momentum — a sign that doing nothing to prevent terrorism suspects from obtaining guns is a problem for vulnerable Republicans in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting.

While the NRA is opposed to the measure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash House passes bipartisan bill to boost business investment MORE (R-Ky.) is more focused on protecting his vulnerable incumbents and keeping control of the chamber in November, according to Senate GOP sources.

“He will not be dictated to,” one lawmaker said of the NRA’s efforts to pressure McConnell.

The Senate Democrat who launched last week’s filibuster on gun control depicted a vote on the Collins measure as a pivotal moment for the Senate, which on Monday rejected four other gun control bills.

“I think you’re seeing in real time the vice grip of the NRA loosening in this place,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenate Dems rip Trump after Putin news conference Dems launch pressure campaign over migrant families Sunday shows preview: Trump readies for meeting with Putin MORE (D-Conn.). “This is a watershed moment whether this gets to the finish line or not. You have Republicans scrambling to try to find a way to remedy their no votes [Monday] night.”

Democrats and Republicans alike are strategizing over the Collins measure.

Both sides are trying to figure out how the vote might shape this fall’s elections, when Democrats could win back the Senate majority by netting just four Senate seats if they retain the White House.

Some Republicans suggested Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDon’t worry (too much) about Kavanaugh changing the Supreme Court Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick The dishonesty of the deep state MORE (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerThis week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Red-state Dem tells Schumer to 'kiss my you know what' on Supreme Court vote Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE (D-N.Y.) aren’t interested in a deal because they want to use gun control as a wedge issue in the fall against GOP Sens. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkThis week: Trump heads to Capitol Hill Trump attending Senate GOP lunch Tuesday High stakes as Trump heads to Hill MORE (Ill.), Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteNew Hampshire governor signs controversial voting bill Former Arizona senator to shepherd Supreme Court nominee through confirmation process Shut the back door to America's opioid epidemic MORE (N.H.), Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanTrump seeks to quell Russia furor GOP moderates hint at smooth confirmation ahead for Kavanaugh Sens introduce bipartisan bill matching Zinke proposed maintenance backlog fix MORE (Ohio), all of whom face challenging reelections in states won by President Obama in 2012.

“Sen. Schumer and Sen. Reid are discouraging Democrats from voting for it, trying to peel off those who have co-sponsored it because they, I don’t believe, really want to come up with a bipartisan solution. They’d just like to keep the issue alive,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash McConnell: Russians are not our friends Russians' indictment casts shadow ahead of Trump-Putin summit MORE (R-Texas) grumbled to reporters at one point on Tuesday.

Schumer on Tuesday argued that the Collins measure doesn’t go far enough and could put sensitive national security information in the public domain.

“We’ve just really gotten the language of Sen. Collins’s bill, and there [are] some potentially serious problems, fixable problems, but problems,” said Schumer, who is poised to become majority leader if Democrats capture the Senate.

He said the Collins amendment would not give the Justice Department authority to deny gun sales to nearly 900,000 foreigners in a federal terrorist screening database.

“That’s a real problem — many of these people would be on a terrorist watchlist,” he said, adding that eight of the nine attackers who unleashed a wave of violence in Paris last year could have come to the United States on visa waivers.

Sponsors estimate about 10 Senate Republicans are on board with the proposal, and a group of potential allies, including Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Senate adds members to pro-NATO group McConnell reassures Europe on Russia MORE (Fla.), a former GOP presidential candidate who is actively thinking about reversing course and running for reelection, are on the fence. 

Ayotte is a co-sponsor and appeared at a press conference with Collins and other supporters in both parties on Tuesday. Toomey also has announced he’ll support the measure.

Collins was spotted on the Senate floor Monday evening lobbying colleagues to back her amendment. At one point she, Ayotte and Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeKelly lobbied Republicans to rebuke Trump after Putin press conference: report Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Flake to Trump: 'Fake news' didn't side with Putin, you did MORE (R-Ariz.), another co-sponsor, huddled around Rubio to sell him on the proposal.

One Senate source involved in the negotiations said Rubio is “close” to backing the bill.

Portman and Kirk say they’re still evaluating it. 

“I haven’t decided,” Kirk told reporters.

McConnell has promised the group that he will set up a vote on the measure, and his leadership team isn’t whipping against it.

“We have not discussed it. I assume every senator will vote their own conscience,” Cornyn, the Republican whip, said.

GOP leaders say a vote could happen as soon as Thursday.

Passing any gun control measure less than five months from Election Day is an uphill battle.

But supporters of the newest effort led by Collins say Monday’s failed amendments were more of an effort by Democrats to score political points and Republicans to play defense than a good faith attempt to pass legislation.

“Realistically, if we have 40 [Democrats] and 20 [Republicans], we can get this done. We’re not there yet, but both sides are making good progress. Every time we talk, both sides have more people who want to do this,” said Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichCNN congressional correspondent talks about her early love of trolls and family Overnight Energy: DNC to reject fossil fuel donations | Regulators see no security risk in coal plant closures | Senate committee rejects Trump EPA, Interior budgets Energy commission sees no national security risk from coal plant closures MORE (D-N.M.), a co-sponsor.  

Senate Republicans say Collins made a convincing pitch for her legislation at their weekly Tuesday lunch meeting.

“I hope we get a strong bipartisan showing,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamKelly lobbied Republicans to rebuke Trump after Putin press conference: report Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE (R-S.C.), another co-sponsor.

“Here’s what you’re betting as a politician. If somebody on this no-fly list goes out and buys a gun tomorrow and kills a bunch of people, you’re in a world of hurt if you vote against this,” he said.

“I’m hopeful,” said Sen. David Purdue (R-Ga.). “We all want to preclude terrorists from getting guns. From what I’ve seen so far, I might very well be able to vote for it.”

The Collins measure differs in key ways from a broader proposal sponsored by Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments Dems launch pressure campaign over migrant families California Dems endorse progressive challenger over Feinstein MORE (D-Calif.) that was rejected on Monday night. 

The Collins legislation would allow the attorney general to block the sale of a gun if an individual is on the no-fly list or the so-called selectee list, which requires additional screening at an airport. 

Collins said the two lists affect approximately 109,000 people, most of whom are foreigners. 

The legislation would allow the decision to be appealed. If an appeal is successful, Collins said Americans and green card holders could get their attorney fees covered.

A vote on Thursday would be a test for the NRA, which has built its fearsome reputation on almost always winning political battles. A loss on Collins’s high-profile bill would dent its reputation of invincibility.

“Unfortunately, Senator Collins and others are focusing their efforts on unconstitutional proposals that would not have prevented the Orlando terrorist attack. The American people want Congress to stop playing politics and pass policies that will keep them safe from terrorists,” said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.

Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy group, and Gun Owners of America have also come out against the amendment, arguing it would deprive people of their Second Amendment rights without due process.