In the congressional debate over gun control, all eyes are on the Cabinet Room in the White House for a Wednesday afternoon meeting.
As House Republicans made clear, any and all gun restrictions were off the table, and senators still grappled with what, if any, path forward they had. It’s President Donald Trump who will dictate the next steps in the gun debate.
Bottom line: Sweeping gun restrictions – at this point, any gun restrictions – are not in the cards in the Republican-led Congress. That much seems clear. But the top aides in both parties continue to acknowledge that the President can scramble the direction of things if the meeting takes some kind of unexpected turn toward, say, the comprehensive background checks measure that’s hanging out in the Senate.
Several aides in touch with the White House on guns say the same thing: There is no unified position on where the building stands on the issue.
“All over the map,” one aide said.
“Serious splits on how this should go,” said another.
And perhaps most importantly, from an aide working on the path forward on guns: “They are sitting over there just waiting to see with the President tweets or says, then trying to translate it for us as best they can. It’s really reactive at this point, and that makes our job more complicated.”
All of this makes Wednesday’s meeting all the more important.
The parameters for an actual Senate gun debate are starting to form behind the scenes. Right now, talks continue about setting up a debate next week, with the bipartisan background check compliance bill – “Fix NICS” – serving as the base legislation and with each side getting a handful of amendment votes.
How to view this: Aides in both parties say the votes are not currently there in the Senate for comprehensive background checks, raising the age for long gun purchases or limiting high capacity magazines. Assault-style weapons ban is completely out of the question. But Senate Majority Leader McConnell now appears willing to give some of those amendments votes (in exchange for several on the Republican side) next week if a time limit agreement can be reached. Game changer? No. But a substantive effort to do something? Yes.
And yet: No matter what the Senate does, House Speaker Paul Ryan made crystal clear where House Republicans stand at the moment. During a weekly news conference Tuesday, the Wisconsin Republican said, “We should be focusing on making sure that citizens who shouldn’t get guns in the first place don’t get those guns.”
Reality check: As it currently stands, the end result remains likely to be what it’s looked like for several days – the “Fix NICS” bill, combined with some type of financial package for school security and violence prevention.
The Senate floor was the place to be Tuesday afternoon
Sitting in the gallery overlooking the Senate floor during Tuesday’s vote series gave a great window into how this was all coming together.
Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranked Republican in the chamber, was discussing possible time agreements and amendment structures with Connecticut Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal on the Senate floor. After a few days without contact, McConnell and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer spoke. Cornyn spoke with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the co-sponsors of a universal background check bill, as did Schumer.
Behind the scenes: Multiple sources say the closed-door Senate Republican policy lunch and the leadership meeting beforehand made clear just how little consensus exists on the path forward even among GOP senators themselves.
The lunch itself focused primarily on school safety, with an array of proposals brought up as possible options. Gun restrictions were hardly broached, save for several comments about how it’s the direction Democrats want to go.
“There is an acknowledgment that we should do something,” one GOP senator told me. “But we are all over the place as to what that something is right now.”
Reality check part 2: While Wednesday’s White House meeting is expected by aides and lawmakers in both parties to lay out the path forward for the debate, don’t think there aren’t also risks. As the Senate Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on the fragile construct of a debate next week, multiple aides expressed concern to me Tuesday night that the President will do something to blow all of that up, and potentially live on camera.