Schumer faces big test on gun debate

Greg Nash

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (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 Trump easily won in 2016.

{mosads}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 Murphy (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 Durbin (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 Manchin (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 Lee 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 Toomey (R-Pa.).

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (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 Pelosi (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 Brown (Ohio) and Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.), both of whom are up for reelection in Trump-won states. Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Bernie Sanders (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 Feinstein (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.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Bob Casey Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Cory Booker Dianne Feinstein Dick Durbin Donald Trump Heidi Heitkamp Joe Manchin Kirsten Gillibrand Mike Lee Nancy Pelosi Pat Toomey Sherrod Brown
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