Pelosi, allies seek to keep gun debate focused on McConnell

Pelosi, allies seek to keep gun debate focused on McConnell
© Greg Nash

Allies of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers MORE (D-Calif.) are rushing to her defense as a small but vocal group of Democrats push to bring the House back to Washington amid the long August recess to address gun violence. 

The lawmakers argue that Democrats already passed a pair of gun bills earlier in the year and fear that ending the recess early to tackle separate proposals would erode pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation COVID-19 workplace complaints surge; unions rip administration Senate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks MORE (R-Ky.) to take up the background check legislation at the forefront of the Democrats’ gun-reform agenda. 

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The strategic split has emerged following a pair of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio over the weekend, which led to the deaths of more than 30 people, injured scores more and reignited the ferocious debate over the nation’s gun laws. 

“We've responded legislatively, and we did it before this latest round of tragedies. The House passed gun violence prevention legislation, sent it over to the Senate, and it's being held up by Mitch McConnell. They should take those bills up and they should pass them,” Rep. Mike ThompsonCharles (Mike) Michael ThompsonGun control group rolls out House endorsements The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Chef José Andrés says most political leaders today are not acting with urgency; Dems crafting 'Rooseveltian' relief package Business interruption insurance bills will help small businesses through national emergencies MORE (D-Calif.), who heads the Democrats’ task force on gun violence prevention, told The Hill.

“As we move forward, there are certainly other things that could be considered, and should be considered,” he added. “But as of right now, the ball is clearly in Mitch McConnell's court. He needs to do his job.”

During a conference call with more than 100 rank-and-file House Democrats on Monday, Pelosi made the case that highlighting their previously passed gun bills would maximize the pressure on McConnell and President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation Stocks open mixed ahead of Trump briefing on China The island that can save America MORE to take them up. Aside from legislation expanding background checks before gun purchases, which the House approved in February, Democrats had also passed a separate measure, sponsored by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), allowing the FBI more time to conduct its background screenings. 

“They have been sitting over there [in the Senate]. The Grim Reaper said he is not going to bring them up,” Pelosi said during the call, referring to McConnell’s self-styled sobriquet. 

“This is where we have to go. And, the president and Mitch McConnell have to feel the public sentiment on this.”

But House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHouse Democrats call on DOJ to investigate recent killings of unarmed black people  Gun control group rolls out House endorsements The House impeachment inquiry loses another round — and yes, that's still going on MORE (D-N.Y.) and a handful of others spoke up and argued that his committee should return to Washington early to take up additional gun legislation, including an assault weapons ban.

A source on the Pelosi call emphasized that the group pushing to cut recess short was not large. “It felt like the folks who wanted to come back were definitely in the minority,” the source said.

A Judiciary source familiar with the discussions says any plans to come back to D.C. early, before Labor Day, are fluid. A scheduler is making calls to gauge which committee members could make it back given things like family vacations, official congressional travel and long-planned town halls and other events in the district. 

If enough members can make it, a markup on other gun bills could be held later in August. As scheduled, the House is not expected to return to Washington until Sept. 9.

From a practical standpoint, returning early — either as a full caucus or a committee — would have little effect on the gun debate raging on Capitol Hill. That's because McConnell, who's already refused for months to consider the Democrats' background check proposals, is similarly vowing to disregard other gun-related bills that lack the support of both the president and bipartisan leaders in both chambers. 

“Partisan theatrics and campaign-trail rhetoric will only take us farther away from the progress all Americans deserve,” he warned Monday in a statement. 

Politically, there could be a substantial messaging difference in an early return to Washington. Democrats are divided, however, on whether it would boost their cause or undermine it. 

Lawmakers like Nadler appear to see benefits in cutting short the recess for the purpose of moving new gun reform bills, at least on the committee level, and then pointing out that McConnell and Senate Republicans weren’t in town to take them up. 

Pelosi initially pushed back on that strategy, hoping to put the burden instead on McConnell to bring the Senate back into session in order to consider the background check legislation, which has overwhelming public support from voters of all political stripes. But in a "Dear Colleague" letter issued after Monday's call, she supported Nadler's plan to potentially bring the Judiciary Committee back to Washington to move additional gun legislation, and left open the possibility for the full House to return, as well.

"The House stands ready to return to pass legislation, if the Senate sends us back an amended bipartisan bill or if other legislation is ready for House action," she wrote.

For now, at least, she seems to have the backing of most of her troops.

“We passed gun legislation back in February. The Senate has done nothing. We are waiting for them to get serious about the situation,” Raskin told The Hill. “I have multiple other pieces of legislation that I’ve sponsored and want to move them quickly, but I don’t want anyone to pretend the Senate has been legislating; they have not."

“The Senate needs to get serious and to act,” he added. “We could have never gone back to our districts in the first place and passed additional gun legislation, and Mitch McConnell still would have done nothing.”

Raskin spoke to The Hill by phone as he was traveling in Israel, raising another logistical and scheduling challenge: Many Democrats are traveling abroad with their families or are on official congressional delegations this August.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse pays tribute to late Congressman Sam Johnson on the floor Barbara Lee: Congress should focus on eliminating poverty House cancels planned Thursday vote on FISA MORE (D-Md.) is on an American Israel Education Foundation-sponsored trip to Israel and the West Bank with 41 other Democrats, including Raskin. They are studying security issues and don’t return until Sunday.

Olivia Beavers contributed to this report which was updated Wednesday at 9:46 a.m.