Schumer tries to woo Republicans on universal background checks bill

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday passed Sen. Charles Schumer’s universal background checks bill along party lines, but the meeting highlighted the divisions that still exist between the parties in coming to an agreement on legislation that has a chance of making it through Congress.

The bill Schumer (D-N.Y.) put before the committee was only a placeholder, similar to one he proposed in the last Congress, as he works to find common ground with Republicans who have backed away from the proposal in recent weeks.

At the meeting, Schumer lashed out at Republican opposition to the bill, with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in particular drawing his ire for saying the bill could lead to “confiscation.”

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“Mass shootings will continue to occur despite universal background checks, and criminals will continue to steal guns and acquire them illegally to circumvent the requirement,” Grassley said. “When that happens we will be back again debating whether gun registration is needed, and when registration fails, the next move will be confiscation.”

That comment provoked an audible groan from Schumer, who accused Grassley of cheapening the debate.

“This idea that this will lead to national registration or confiscation, I have to tell you, my good friend Chuck Grassley, that demeans the argument here,” Schumer said, banging his hand on the table.

“I would hope and pray that we’ll debate the rational parts of this bill, and not say that this bill is going to lead to confiscation ... or registration,” he added. “There’s nothing in this bill — or nothing in history, since the Brady Law was passed — that contains a scintilla of truth to that.”

Schumer once called background checks the “sweet spot” for gun control reform, but negotiations with Republicans have stalled in recent weeks over how to implement an expansion of background checks. His frustration was on full display at Tuesday’s hearing.

“You know, it’s sad,” he said. “Right after Newtown there was a view that maybe the right place we could all come together on was background checks. Because background checks, unlike some of the other proposals here, which I support, do not interfere with the law-abiding citizen’s right to bear arms.”

Schumer negotiated for weeks with Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in hopes of reaching a bipartisan deal, but ultimately had to move ahead without a Republican partner.

“We’re told that there’s such a widespread support for universal background checks that a bipartisan bill would be on its way to passage,” Grassley said Tuesday. “Instead, three out of the four senators involved in those discussions do not endorse the bill that is now before us.”

Schumer on Tuesday said he’s still working on a compromise that would satisfy Republicans and Democrats alike.

“I’ve been talking and am continuing to talk with colleagues across the political spectrum, and across the aisle, about a compromise approach,” he said. “I remain optimistic that we’ll be able to roll one out, but we’re not 100 percent of the way there yet.”

Grassley detailed the issues that Republicans have voiced concerns about in recent weeks with the legislation. In addition to saying it would require a national guns registry — a deal-breaker for Republicans — he ticked through the “unintended consequences” that he said would be overly burdensome for law-abiding gun-owners.

“These are the kinds of provisions ... I put in the ideal bill that law enforcement and others want,” Schumer countered. “But we’re willing to negotiate and compromise on those, as I’m doing with my colleagues.”

The Fix Gun Checks Act is the third of four gun control bills to make it out of committee. Last week, the panel approved legislation to crack down on the illegal trafficking and straw purchasing of firearms. The illegal tracking bill likely has the best chance of any gun violence bill of winning congressional approval.

On Tuesday, the committee approved a bill aimed at increasing school security. On Thursday lawmakers will mark up a bill seeking to ban the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity clips.

The committee seems committed to sending each of these to the Senate floor for a vote, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will likely package them separately to keep the controversial measures from sinking the more popular ones. 

— Alex Bolton contributed to this report.