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Hastert says no decision on assault weapons vote

Bush lays low on issue

From Ted Barrett and Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

House Speaker Dennis Hastert
House Speaker Dennis Hastert

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Thursday that Republican leaders have not decided whether to schedule a vote to renew a ban on assault weapons, backing away from comments from another GOP leader.

"The bill hasn't been discussed by the leadership yet, and I haven't had a discussion with the president yet so I'm not ready to make that decision," about scheduling the bill, Hastert, R-Illinois, said.

Earlier this week, a top aide to Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said the ban would not come up for a reauthorization vote. DeLay told reporters he did not believe there were enough votes to support reauthorization.(Full story)

But Hastert said DeLay was "caught off guard" when he made that comment. The House speaker, however, would not commit to a vote and refused to say whether he supported a renewal of the ban. He voted against it in 1994.

The White House says President Bush supports the ban, but the president has not said anything himself about the matter.(Full story)

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a supporter of the ban, said she hopes Bush presses Republican leaders to schedule a vote.

"I hope the president will use his good offices and his considerable political capital to have the assault weapon ban brought up on the House floor," the California Democrat said.

At issue is the proposed reauthorization of the 10 year-old ban of 19 semi-automatic weapons known as assault weapons. That ban is set to expire in September 2004.

As a candidate, Bush said he would support extending the ban. But he has not talked about the issue recently.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday the president still supports reauthorization of the ban. But he would not say whether Bush himself would address the issue or attempt to drum up support for it in the same way he has publicly exhorted lawmakers to support his proposed tax cuts.

The ban barely passed a Democratic-controlled Congress 10 years ago before President Clinton signed it into law. Immediately after it became law, the Republicans won control of the House. The GOP has since won the Senate and the White House.

The issue is not strictly a partisan one. While Democrats are generally at the forefront of battles for gun control measures, many of their members in rural areas oppose gun control. And some Republicans who represent large cities support some forms of gun control.

Congressional aides say there is a growing list of Democrats from Southern and rural districts who oppose banning the guns.

The National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobby, opposes reauthorization of the ban, saying it has done nothing to curb crime.

"Congress is going to look at this, do an impartial examination, and I believe the issue will die on its merits," Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, told CNN. He said two studies have shown the ban has had no impact on crime.

Fleischer said there was a study under way looking at the effectiveness of the ban.

"The study is still pending," Fleischer said.

Privately, some Democrats are grumbling that the president is trying to have it both ways -- supporting the extension in word, but doing little in deed to accomplish it.

One aide to a senior Democrat said the president would have to push for a reauthorization of the ban if he wants it.

"We're not gonna take a bullet for it," he said.

Asked about Hastert's comments, DeLay said he still didn't believe there were enough votes to reauthorize the ban. "We don't like to bring up legislation we don't think can pass," DeLay said.

He said there is no bill on the issue and suggested it was premature to talk about the issue.

"Who brought this up? Who introduced it? There have been no motions," he said. "I think, quite frankly, that this is a media driven issue."

Senior White House Correspondent John King contributed to this report.

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