WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is resisting pressure to bring senators back from recess to address gun violence, taking a more measured approach that could very likely result in no legislation, despite wrenching calls to “do something” in the aftermath of back-to-back mass shootings.
President Donald Trump is privately calling up senators — and publicly pushing for an expansion of background checks for firearms purchases — but McConnell knows those ideas have little Republican support. In fact, the White House threatened to veto a House-passed background checks bill earlier this year. As the nation reels from the frequency of shootings and their grave toll, McConnell’s slow-walk is coming under criticism from those who want Congress to act.
On Wednesday, Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown made a plea to Trump during the president’s visit to Dayton, where one of the mass shooting occurred, to “call on Sen. McConnell to bring the Senate back in session this week, to tell the Senate he wants the background checks bill that has already passed the House.”
A group of House Democrats urged McConnell to immediately call the Senate back into session to consider the House-passed legislation. In Kentucky, where McConnell is recuperating from a weekend fall that left his shoulder fractured, activists have been demonstrating at his home and protesting at his downtown Louisville office.
“We are aggressively moving forward in pressing Leader Mitch McConnell to call the Senate back into session,” wrote Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a letter this week to Democratic colleagues.
But none of it has moved the Republican Senate to act more swiftly after the shootings in Ohio and Texas over the weekend, which left 31 people dead and scores injured.
McConnell’s office is declining comment, referring back to a short statement he issued late Monday saying he was tasking three GOP committee chairmen “to engage in bipartisan discussions of potential solutions.”
In the meantime, Trump has been dialing up Senate Republicans about what is possible. He spoke at least three times with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., about his bipartisan background check bill with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the GOP senator said.
Republican senators have been engaging in almost daily conference calls, and talking among themselves and the White House, as they try to figure out next steps, according to a Republican aide familiar with calls who discussed the private talks on condition of anonymity.
Trump continues to say there’s “great appetite” for a background checks bill. “I think we can bring up background checks like we’ve never had before,” he said before departing Washington.
But that is not the case, for now.
Even though one background checks bill was passed overwhelmingly by the Democratic-held House in February, it has scant support in the Senate.
The Toomey-Manchin bill had its greatest backing during a 2013 Senate vote, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting, but it failed to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance.
Since then, Toomey and Maine Sen. Susan Collins are the only two Republicans who voted for the background checks bill in 2015 — the last time it was brought to the floor in the Senate.
But Toomey said he thinks sentiment in the Senate has moved toward the bill in recent years and he was heartened by Trump’s “encouraging remarks,” he tweeted Wednesday.
Instead, Republicans are trying to build support for more modest measures, including so-called red-flag bills from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that would allow friends and family to petition authorities to keep guns away from some people, as well as adjustments to the existing background checks system. But those efforts are also running into trouble from conservatives, who worry about due process and infringing on gun owners’ rights.
They’re also considering changes to the existing federal background checks system, modeled off the so-called fix-NICS bill that made improvements in the last session of Congress, as well as strengthening penalties for hate crimes, Republicans said.
While those efforts have bipartisan support, Democrats are unlikely to agree to them without consideration of the background checks bill.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday, “We Democrats are not going to settle for half-measures so Republicans can feel better and try to push the issue of gun violence off to the side.”