Congress may pass background check legislation in funding bill
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 Ryan (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.”
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 Cornyn (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 Walker (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 Sanford (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 Perry (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 Hoyer’s district and left two students injured and the gunman dead.
Rep. Joe Barton (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 Trump 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 Pelosi (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 Cole (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.
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