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Congress may pass background check legislation in funding bill

Congress may pass background check legislation in funding bill
© Greg Nash

Congress is considering attaching a narrow background check bill for gun purchases to a must-pass government funding package before the end of the week, as thousands of high school students are set to congregate Saturday in Washington for the March for Our Lives calling for an end to gun violence.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanCruz hires Trump campaign press aide as communications director Bottom line Ex-Trump chief of staff Priebus mulling Wisconsin governor bid MORE (R-Wis.) on Tuesday said leadership was actively talking to members about adding the background legislation, shortly after news broke of a new school shooting on Tuesday morning in Maryland.

“That’s something we’re discussing with our colleagues," Ryan told reporters in the Capitol, referring to the bipartisan Fix NICS (National Instant Criminal Background System) Act.

"I think we should do Fix NICS. I agree with Fix NICS,” Ryan added. “That’s something we’re discussing with our friends on the other side of the aisle.”

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The House already approved the background check bill in December, but paired the measure with controversial legislation that allows people with concealed weapons to take them across state lines.

Gun rights supporters generally back the Fix NICS bill, but it would be a disappointment to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and conservatives if that bill was separated from the concealed carry legislation, which is a top NRA priority.

The Senate’s stand-alone Fix NICS bill, backed by Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynPolitics, not racism or sexism, explain opposition to Biden Cabinet nominees Biden pledges support for Texas amid recovery from winter storm Partisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission MORE (R-Texas), now has more than 70 co-sponsors in the Senate.

"Cornyn's version is not preferable for the House side … for whatever reason the Senate – it doesn't look like they are going to keep [concealed carry] in there. Which is a frustrating place” to be in, said Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerNorth Carolina GOP condemns Burr for impeachment vote against Trump Madison Cawthorn throws support behind Mark Walker in NC Senate primary Democrat Jeff Jackson jumps into North Carolina Senate race MORE (R-N.C.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee. “Fix NICS, a lot of us don't have a major problem with that. We wanted to see it the way the House passed it.”

A spokeswoman for the NRA noted that the gun group supported Fix NICS even before it was tacked on to concealed carry legislation.

House conservatives say GOP leaders promised them that the two issues would not be delinked. But many conservatives already aren’t voting for the omnibus spending bill for other reasons, so Republican leaders may be less inclined to cater to their demands.

Rep. Mark SanfordMark Sanford5 lawyers leave Trump impeachment team ahead of trial: reports South Carolina GOP votes to censure Rep. Rice over impeachment vote Trump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial MORE (R-S.C.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told The Hill that he "would suspect" Fix NICS winds up in the final funding package.

“That’s my reading of the tea leaves,” he said.

Conservatives expressed disappointment that House GOP leaders were considering including the stand-alone Fix NICS bill, but said it probably wasn't enough to call for a leadership change.

"It would just be another one in the long list of broken promises," Rep. Scott PerryScott Gordon PerryNew Democratic super PAC to target swing-district Republicans over vote to overturn election The Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Focus on vaccine, virus, travel NYT: Rep. Perry played role in alleged Trump plan to oust acting AG MORE (R-Pa.) told The Hill. "We knew they were never going to stick to that."

Cornyn said he didn’t know “for sure” whether his measure will make the final cut, but expressed some optimism that it was still a part of the negotiations as of Tuesday afternoon.

"I hope so,” he told reporters.

Lawmakers have been under increasing pressure to enact tougher gun laws since last month's mass shooting at a Florida high school — a sense that was further amplified by the Maryland shooting Tuesday, which occurred in Democratic Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse set for tight vote on COVID-19 relief package Key Democrat unveils plan to restore limited earmarks Overnight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission MORE’s district and left two students injured and the gunman dead.

Rep. Joe BartonJoe Linus BartonRep. Ron Wright dies after contracting COVID-19 Biden's gain is Democratic baseball's loss with Cedric Richmond Bottom line MORE (R-Texas) said Republican leaders announced the Maryland high school shooting during the GOP conference meeting on Tuesday morning.

“Every time something like this occurs, we pray it will be the last.  But that is unlikely to be the case until Congress takes meaningful action,” Hoyer said in a statement.

Congress has not passed any new gun measures since the Florida shooting, which will be in the spotlight on Saturday when marches and rallies are scheduled to take place all across the country. 

The House passed a school safety bill last week that would create a new federal grant program to train students, teachers and law enforcement on how to spot and report signs of potential gun violence, as well as provide $25 million for schools to strengthen their school security systems. But the bill steered clear of the demands of gun control advocates.

President TrumpDonald TrumpNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE has called on Congress to pass Fix NICS, which would encourage states to report more frequently to the criminal background database for gun purchases. The bill would not expand background checks, but just enforce the existing law more stringently.

Lawmakers are racing to wrap up work on the omnibus spending bill, which they hope to release Tuesday and consider on the House floor Thursday. Current government funding runs out Friday at midnight.

But Senate GOP leaders suggested that a short-term spending bill may be needed if they can’t resolve outstanding issues in time, meaning lawmakers would be in town and working in the Capitol during Saturday’s gun violence protest near the National Mall.

Democrats, while supportive of Fix NICS, say it doesn’t go far enough, and they worry that GOP leaders would use the passage of the bill to move on from the gun control debate.

Democratic lawmakers want to expand background checks, raise the age requirement for rifle purchases and lift a ban on federal research on gun violence, though it does not appear that Democrats are demanding those items in exchange for their support on the omnibus.

Asked if the Maryland shooting has boosted the Democrats’ push for gun control measures in the omnibus, House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMcCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 After vote against coronavirus relief package, Golden calls for more bipartisanship in Congress Democrats don't trust GOP on 1/6 commission: 'These people are dangerous' MORE (D-Calif.) was elusive.

“We’re going to have gun initiatives this week anyway, because we always do and because the march is this weekend," she said.

The government spending measure is, however, expected to include a significant chunk of money to ramp up school safety.

"Stay tuned. It’s going to be a nice number,” Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeDemocratic women sound alarm on female unemployment House votes to kick Greene off committees over embrace of conspiracy theories LIVE COVERAGE: House debates removing Greene from committees MORE (R-Okla.), a senior appropriator, told reporters last week.

– Mike Lillis and Juliegrace Brufke contributed to this report, which was updated at 4:10 p.m.