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Schumer faces big test on gun debate

Schumer faces big test on gun debate
© Greg Nash

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Voters say Biden should make coronavirus vaccine a priority: poll New York City subway service could be slashed 40 percent, officials warn MORE (D-N.Y.) is walking a fine line as he tries to balance the competing factions of his caucus during this year’s high-profile fight over gun control.

Schumer has to deal with liberals who are jockeying for 2020 presidential bids as well as centrists who are up for reelection in states President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE easily won in 2016.

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Democratic leaders are demanding a wide-ranging debate in exchange for bringing up a narrow bill to bolster the background check system. But the caucus emerged from a closed-door meeting on Tuesday still trying to hash out its strategy for the looming floor fight. A bipartisan group of lawmakers will also head to the White House on Wednesday to meet with Trump, which could affect Schumer’s game plan.

Asked what Democrats will seek votes on, Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyRepublicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Biden decides on pick for secretary of State MORE (D-Conn.) said, “We talked about that in that caucus. ... I think [Schumer] said he’s going to work with the caucus to come up with a short list of priorities, soon, in the coming days.” Murphy, a leading advocate for gun control, has been mentioned as a possible 2020 presidential candidate.

Schumer said Democrats “will have a list of things that we think need to be done,” but declined to go into detail about what the party will ask for.

Democrats stopped short of saying they would block the Fix NICS (National Instant Background Check System) Act if GOP leadership won’t agree to give them votes on their forthcoming list of proposals. The NICS bill is backed by Republicans, Democrats and the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Lawmakers are under growing pressure to pass new gun control legislation after 17 people were killed at a school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Schumer and Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Whitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee MORE (D-Ill.), the top two Senate Democrats, met with survivors of the shooting on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

While Schumer will undoubtedly get pressed by gun control activists to pursue sweeping reforms, centrist Democrats who are up for reelection in red states this year could balk at such a measure.

For example, Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinMajor unions back Fudge for Agriculture secretary Voters split on eliminating the filibuster: poll OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight MORE (D-W.Va.), who is up for reelection this fall, was backed by the NRA in 2012. He subsequently sponsored a background check bill after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting that was opposed by the NRA, which is unlikely to support his bid for a second term.

Many Democrats argue that the Florida high school shooting is a tipping point in the country’s debate on guns after years of stalled legislation on Capitol Hill. Some Democrats are making it clear they won’t settle for passing a bill that the NRA backs.

But blocking the Fix NICS Act could backfire because it would likely prevent any new gun control legislation from passing Congress, a move that Republicans and Trump could criticize on the campaign trail.

Asked if his caucus would torpedo the bill, Schumer noted it was a GOP senator who delayed it on Monday, after it was hot-lined in the upper chamber.

“The Democrats did not [block it]. But what we are asking for and are going to make every effort to get is the full debate,” Schumer told reporters.

A spokesperson for Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeLoeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight MORE said the Utah Republican has some “due process concerns” with the bill.

The NICS legislation would enforce existing law by ensuring that authorities report criminal records to the NICS and penalizing agencies that don’t provide the information to the FBI.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he would vote for the bill regardless of what else Republicans agree to.

“Every step is important. Sen. Schumer has a view that is certainly entitled to respect and I would heed his leadership, but I think every step toward gun violence prevention is important,” he told reporters this week.

Underscoring the fragile party’s political balance, Schumer has staked out universal background checks as the caucus’s top goal while not publicly calling for this Congress to pass an assault weapons ban.

“Even in the reddest of states, universal background checks has overwhelming support,” Schumer said on Tuesday.

Support of universal background checks on gun sales is very popular, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released last week. Ninety-seven percent support the requirement, including 97 percent of voters who identify as Republicans, according the poll.

But gun control is a politically thorny issue, and red-state Democrats helped foil the 2013 proposal to expand background checks, days after a Quinnipiac University poll had support for the requirement at 91 percent.

At the time five Democrats, each from red and purple states, voted against the bill from Manchin and Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyAppeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy MORE (R-Pa.).

Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampMajor unions back Fudge for Agriculture secretary Five House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet Biden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' in new administration MORE (D-N.D.) — who is up for reelection in 2018 — is the only one of the five who is still in the Senate. Her office didn’t respond to a request for comment on Tuesday on her current position on the bill. 

Asked about the Democratic leadership’s strategy, Heitkamp said, “I think there’s going to be a whole big discussion about what’s happening with guns and gun violence and I think that everything is going to be on that discussion table.”

Murphy, meanwhile, appeared bullish on Tuesday that the politics of gun control are changing. Asked if Democrats could successfully run on the issue, he fired back: “Have you been watching the polls?”

“This is an issue that Democrats can win on in every single state, in every single district. There’s not another issue in the world that polls at 97 percent like background checks does. ... Every Democrat should be running on background checks,” he said.

Toomey has floated that he could bring back the Toomey–Manchin proposal, potentially with changes. Manchin, whose state Trump won by more than 40 percentage points, said Trump needs to find a path on gun control that he is “comfortable” with.

“I think it’s imperative that he has to get on board with what he feels is comfortable and protects Second Amendment rights, same as I do, and then we go from there,” Manchin told WV MetroNews.

Heitkamp, Manchin and 8 other Senate Democrats are up for reelection in red and purple states won by Trump.

Some House Democrats have warned their party against overreaching in the gun control fight as their colleagues, including House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation MORE (D-Calif.), renew their push for a ban on assault weapons.

A similar bill was introduced by Senate Democrats on Tuesday, winning just more than half of the caucus, including Sens. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOn The Money: Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | JPMorgan: Economy will shrink in first quarter due to COVID-19 spike Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol MORE (Ohio) and Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyScranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Grassley tests positive for coronavirus Casey says he isn't thinking about Pennsylvania gubernatorial bid in 2022 MORE Jr. (Pa.), both of whom are up for reelection in Trump-won states. Sens. Cory BookerCory BookerSenate Democrats reelect Schumer as leader by acclamation  Hill associations push for more diversity in lawmakers' staffs Sanders celebrates Biden-Harris victory: 'Thank God democracy won out' MORE (D-N.J.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Social media responds to Harris making history: 'I feel like our ancestors are rejoicing' Ocasio-Cortez says she doesn't plan on 'staying in the House forever' MORE (D-N.Y.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersIn defense of incrementalism: A call for radical realism Thomas Piketty says pandemic is opportunity to address income inequality Trump will soon be out of office — but polarization isn't going anywhere MORE (I-Vt.) — each considered a 2020 White House hopeful — also backed the bill.

“I’ve indicated that it is my view that we should ban assault weapons in this country, weapons which are designed for no other purpose but to kill human beings,” Sanders said during a floor speech.

Murphy added that lawmakers will need to “make a decision” if the Fix NICS Act is the only thing that can pass the Senate.

Asked if she could support the Fix NICS Act if it’s the only bill that is allowed to come up, Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Whitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee MORE (D-Calif.) — who is up for reelection and facing a primary challenge from the left — told reporters: “I don’t like that question.”

“Obviously I feel very strongly we have to get assault weapons off the streets,” she said. “And I feel very strongly on doing away with the bump stock.”