Republicans entered this week with momentum behind a modest gun control bill and optimism that they could begin voting soon in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
“We’ve gotta get started. What I can’t comprehend is the idea, the possibility we might end up leaving here this week without doing anything. I think that would be a big mistake,” said Republican Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn on Tuesday.
But after their preferred gun control plan was rebuked by President Trump during a surprise-filled meeting the day before, senators left for the week on Thursday without doing anything.
A bill to beef up the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) gained 50 cosponsors this week and seemed to be on the path for bipartisan support to pass the Senate.
Then, sitting next to Cornyn, the bill’s lead sponsor, Trump denounced that plan, known as the Fix NICS Act, for not going far enough. He called for broader gun control measures such as universal background checks for purchasing firearms and raising the legal age limit for buying some weapons from 18 to 21. Those policies are widely unpopular among Republican lawmakers.
“Some of you people are petrified of the NRA. You can’t be petrified,” Trump chastised lawmakers.
As the Fix NICS Act shifts from a slam dunk accomplishment to a plan denounced by the president as insufficient, the Senate is turning its mind to other matters for now. On Thursday afternoon, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that gun control legislation will not hit the Senate floor next week, and instead they are sticking to a long-planned vote on a banking reform bill.
Asked what will come after banking reform, Cornyn said the Senate may turn to a sex trafficking bill, and then there is still the need to sort out a DACA fix and a spending bill to avoid another government shutdown by the end of the month.
Republicans insist they want to pass the Fix NICS Act, but exactly when that would happen is unclear. It seems likely that Congress will not pass a bill before what is expected to be a large gun control rally in Washington on March 24.
The Fix NICS Act is designed to improve reporting by law enforcement agencies to the background check registry but does not expand the background check system at all. Another proposed plan would be some version of the Manchin–Toomey bill, which would add new requirements for background checks before purchasing weapons online or at gun shows.
Sen. Joe Manchin said Thursday there were no active bipartisan talks about his 5-year-old bill before the White House meeting, but he’s going to be talking about it more to his colleagues. “I think the president was pretty clear yesterday he wants there to be a larger, more inclusive bill with background checks in it,” he said.
In 2013, the Manchin–Toomey bill received 54 votes in favor and 47 against — short of the 60 needed to move forward. Four Democrats voted against the measure, only one of whom — Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota — is still in office, and just four Republicans voted for it. No new Republicans have come out for the bill in recent days, though some have said they would consider it.
Democrats largely support the Manchin–Toomey bill, but say the plan only has a fighting chance if Trump puts his weight behind it and forces Republicans to the table.
“He’s gotta put some elbow grease into this,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy. “I think Republicans are feeling the heat even more than ever. This debate is different after yesterday’s meeting.”
Other proposals being discussed include raising the legal age limit of purchasing certain high-powered weapons from 18 to 21, arming teachers in schools, and putting more resources into mental health facilities. Many Democrats are also proposing an assault rifle ban but that plan is certain to fail without bipartisan support.