Senate

Senate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation

Greg Nash

Senate Republicans say President Trump’s comments Wednesday calling for more ambitious gun control proposals won’t change the political calculations in their conference, which supports a limited response to the mass shooting at a Florida high school in February.

Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas), who is leading the GOP response to gun violence in the upper chamber, told reporters after the meeting with Trump at the White House that he still favors a limited approach.

He wants to put a narrow bill on the floor that would give state and local officials more incentive to report relevant information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

{mosads}”For me the most obvious place to start is the Fix NICS bill that has 46 cosponsors,” Cornyn said of the bill he’s co-sponsored with Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.).

Cornyn warned that the Senate risked a repeat of this month’s failed immigration debate if it tries to draft an expansive piece of legislation.

“I think the best way to start is to start with Fix NICSand then we can see what sort of amendments people offer that can get 60 votes,” he said. 

The narrow approach favored by Cornyn is the strategy that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) effectively endorsed the day before.

Trump surprised lawmakers at a White House meeting Wednesday afternoon when he voiced support for a five-year-old proposal sponsored by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to expand background checks for firearms bought at gun shows and over the internet.

Hours before, Senate Republicans said it had no chance of passing and wasn’t really on the table.

Trump also reiterated his support for raising the age requirement for purchasing assault-style rifles from 18 to 21, dispelling uncertainty on Capitol Hill about where he stood on the question.

GOP leaders at lunchtime Wednesday said that raising the age threshold wouldn’t have enough votes to pass.

“There aren’t the votes there for that,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.) told The Hill.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who over the weekend indicated support for raising the age for buying rifles, on Tuesday walked back his earlier statement.

And Trump urged lawmakers to fit a variety of ideas into one bill, dramatically expanding the scope of the legislative response that GOP leaders had tried to keep as narrow as possible. {mosads}

“It would be nice if we could add everything on to it,” he told lawmakers who met with him in the Cabinet Room, even suggesting a name for the measure: the U.S. Background Check Bill.

But Cornyn poured cold water on the idea of moving a comprehensive bill, cautioning that it’s “easier said than done.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), another member of the GOP leadership, said, “If you actually tried to put a comprehensive bill together and take a bill to the floor that was comprehensive, you’d probably wind up with no result.”

He said the Fix NICS bill “has the biggest chance to get 60 votes.”

Trump suggested using the Toomey–Manchin proposal as a base bill and building on top of it, but his words of encouragement failed to move the needle much in the Senate.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who attended the White House meeting, said he would still vote against it.

“I haven’t voted for it in the past, I’m not inclined to vote for it now,” Rubio told reporters after the meeting. He also noted that the shooters in recent mass killings did not buy their weapons at gun shows or from unlicensed dealers and wouldn’t have been stopped if the Toomey–Manchin bill had been law.

Rubio said “we’re better off” prosecuting straw purchasers who attempt to evade gun laws already on the books or tightening the current background check system with the Fix NICS bill.

One Republican senator who requested anonymity expressed doubt that Trump fully understands the Toomey–Manchin proposal and predicted he would change his mind on comprehensive background checks.

“Do you think he has any idea what’s in Manchin–Toomey?” the lawmaker asked. “As he gets more information he may not hold to that. What makes you think Manchin–Toomey will get more votes than it did before?”

Democratic leaders pushed the bill, which would close what they call the “gun show loophole,” in 2013 but it garnered only 54 votes — six votes short of the number needed to overcome a filibuster.

Six Democrats who voted for that bill five years ago have since been replaced by Republicans who would be more skeptical of the legislation: former Sens. Kay Hagan (N.C.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Mary Landrieu (La.), Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.).

Toomey, however, argued that Trump’s words had given his joint proposal with Manchin new life.

“It does feel as though the atmosphere has changed. It does feel to me as though there are members who were not willing to do something in the past that might be willing now,” he said. “I know for a fact that there are individual senators who have voted against Manchin–Toomey who have told me they are reconsidering.”

But even Democrats were skeptical that Trump would follow up his bold talk on Wednesday with action.

Murphy, a champion of universal background checks, said he is “not highly confident.”

“The White House can now launch a lobbying campaign to get universal background checks passed as the president promised in this meeting or they can sit and do nothing. We’ll see,” he said.  

Tags Chris Murphy Donald Trump Jay Rockefeller Joe Manchin John Cornyn John Thune Kay Hagan Marco Rubio Mark Udall Mary Landrieu Mitch McConnell Pat Roberts Pat Toomey Roy Blunt Tim Johnson Tom Harkin
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