Several House Democrats led by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer descended on an empty Capitol Tuesday to demand Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell immediately return to Washington and take action to curb gun violence.
“I’ve been in politics for a long time. It takes no courage to put on the Senate floor a bill that is supported by 90 percent of America,” Hoyer, flanked by people who lost loved ones in mass shootings, told reporters. “What takes courage is to look a special interest group in the eye and say enough is enough, it’s time to act.”
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But Democrats’ latest attempt to pressure Republicans into quickly passing their universal background checks legislation is likely to fall short.
McConnell has already ruled out cutting recess short and said the Senate will address the issue when the chamber returns in September. President Donald Trump, who has spoken positively about new gun safety efforts, has also declined to ask Congress to reconvene.
At least some Democrats, on the other hand, are likely to return to Washington early.
Hoyer, fresh off leading dozens of Democrats on a week-long visit to Israel, said the House Judiciary Committee will come back over recess to approve additional gun control legislation. He also did not rule out the House using other tactics to pressure McConnell, including through the funding bills Congress must pass to keep the government open beyond Sept. 30.
But the No. 2 Democrat did not say what bills the Judiciary panel will consider or when, and he gave no indication the full House would return early, as some lawmakers demanded last week.
House Democrats have repeatedly called on McConnell to allow a vote on their universal background checks legislation since two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, left 31 people dead two weekends ago.
The bill, which would require background checks for nearly all gun purchases, passed the House earlier this year and represented the first major action on gun control in Congress in nearly a decade.
That’s despite a spate of mass shootings in recent years from the massacre of 20 six- and seven-year old children in Newtown in 2012 to the shooting deaths of 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando in 2016 to the murder of 17 students and faculty members at a Parkland, Fla., high school last year.
Universal background checks continues to be broadly supported by the public — including more than 90 percent of voters in a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll — but the issue has continued to divide lawmakers along partisan lines.
Trump threatened to veto the House-passed background checks bill after it passed in February. But in the wake of the most recent deadly shootings, the president has repeatedly expressed support for background checks without endorsing any specific legislation.
“Look, it’s very simple — there is nobody more pro-second amendment than Donald Trump,” the president told reporters on Tuesday. “But I don’t want guns in the hands of a lunatic or a maniac. And I think if we do proper background checks you could prevent that.”
“I am convinced that Mitch wants to do something. I’ve spoken to Mitch McConnell — he’s a good man. He wants to do something,” Trump continued.
McConnell has not endorsed any specific legislation and has only said proposals to expand background checks and red flag laws, which are intended to keep guns away from unstable people, would be “front and center” when the Senate returns after Labor Day. McConnell also didn’t rule out considering an assault weapons ban but the idea is likely to receive little, if any, Republican support.
“We’re going to have these bipartisan discussions and when we get back, hopefully be able to come together and actually pass something,” McConnell told a Kentucky radio station last week.
In the meantime, Trump has privately spoken to several lawmakers over the last week to gauge support for gun control legislation.
Trump had a “good conversation” with Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, the president told reporters Tuesday. And he called Speaker Nancy Pelosi late last week after she sent him a letter demanding he bring the Senate back in session over recess.
Trump has also spoken to Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) about their background checks legislation and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), among others.
Schumer plans to formally ask that Trump withdraw his request to spend $5 billion at the border, and instead spend the money on addressing “gun violence and violent white supremacist extremism,” a source familiar with the plans told POLITICO Playbook.
But despite Trump’s calls for action, many Senate Republicans still have concerns about passing new background checks legislation as well as red flag laws.
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said Tuesday he had not seen any “meaningful” proposals that would sufficiently protect the Second Amendment rights of gun owners — and that includes red flag laws, a more modest effort than universal background checks.
“The challenge you have with any of these is that you have to have an adjudication process in place before you take away someone’s constitutional right,” Rounds told reporters in the Capitol.
“It doesn’t mean that there is not another proposal out there someplace which we will consider but there’s a reason why a lot of this stuff has not been done already,” he added. “And that is because it’s not as easy as what it sounds like.”
Hoyer and the other House Democrats at the press conference Tuesday said there is no way the Senate can refuse to act after the latest shootings and expressed dismay that some Senate Republicans were already zeroing in on red flag proposals.
“The Senate’s focus, as if red flag law was the be-all-end-all, is absolutely wrong and a cop out. It’s a way to avoid doing their responsibility,” Hoyer said.
Democrats said they’ve been approached by Americans across the country in the last week urging Congress to do something. Hoyer said his pilot on the flight back from Israel personally implored him to act on gun violence.
Rep. Debbie Dingell said she was approached by several people at a festival in Dearborn, Mich., over the weekend, including a mother of an autistic child who wouldn’t let go of Dingell’s hand as she pleaded for Congress to act.
“Her daughter is on the autistic scale. And she said to me, ‘She’ll never stay quiet in a closet.’ I’m scared to death, you have to do something,” Dingell recounted.
Dingell’s late husband, former Rep. John Dingell, was a longtime member of the National Rifle Association and a board member of the powerful pro-guns group. But Debbie Dingell has been an outspoken gun control advocate since replacing her husband in the House in 2015.
“The Senate’s got to come to the table, they’ve got to act. We’ve got to start to do something so our kids can start school and not look at me and say, ‘Are we safe?’” Dingell said.
The Democrats were flanked by several advocates — many of whom had lost friends, siblings or parents due to gun violence — who called on McConnell to act quickly before public momentum is lost.
“At what point are you outraged, Senate Leader McConnell?” said Dr. Wendy Edmonds, whose sister was killed in the Navy Yard mass shooting in 2015.
Marianne Levine and Caitlin Oprysko contributed to this report.