Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a decision to make.
In the wake of two mass shootings in Texas and Ohio that left 31 people dead, the Senate’s leading Republican – a 35-year public servant who has earned a reputation as being hardened to the criticisms of Democrats and who relishes stopping House legislation at the Senate’s edge – is grappling with how his party can respond to a changing moment in American politics on guns.
Not just in Washington, but back home in Kentucky, McConnell is facing the kind of pressure that were it on any other member, might shift momentum even incrementally. At a vigil outside his office Tuesday night, more than 100 protesters gathered. They chanted “do your job” and carried signs urging McConnell to “let Congress vote.”
“Work for all the people, not just your party,” one sign said.
Linda Yuda, who said she once voted for McConnell, said she’d recently written her senior senator a letter.
“I used to be proud,” she said of McConnell. Now, she said she wonders how he sleeps at night.
Asked if she thought there would be changes to the country’s gun laws: “not unless President Trump tells them to.”
Several issues under consideration
After President Donald Trump’s address to the nation, McConnell did crack the door open Monday night – however slightly – to a debate about guns in the US Senate writing in a statement that “Senate Republicans are prepared to do our part.”
Behind the scenes, aides say McConnell has dispatched three chairmen – Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker of Mississippi – to begin working on proposals that could attract bipartisan support and be signed by the President, proposals that in his words “help protect our communities without infringing on Americans’ constitutional rights.” Aides close to the process say that the lawmakers are looking at potential mental health legislation, the role of video games and ways to give states incentives to enact “red flag” laws, a change that enables family members to get court orders to keep potentially dangerous relatives from having access to firearms.
But the window for change is short and the Senate – despite calls from Democrats to come back from recess early – isn’t expected to be back until September. In a time when a presidential tweet or off-the-cuff comment can dominate an entire week’s news cycle, five weeks is an eternity to keep the focus on marginal changes to the country’s gun laws.
Still, those close to McConnell say the majority leader is serious about his intentions to at the very least allow the Senate to work through a bipartisan process and debate on the country’s gun laws.
“I’ve talked to him this week and he’s very, very grief stricken about what has befallen our country on numerous occasions, and I think he’s got the same kinds of questions most of us have, which is what can we actually do that may have a meaningful impact on stopping this in the future,” said former McConnell adviser Scott Jennings. “I hear him saying that he wants to find something meaningful, but his job is to run a process that gets to something meaningful and can get to an end product. His job is not to lead a process that leads to a bunch of grandstanding and then nothing.”
A political tactician, McConnell is not one to get ahead of his conference especially when members are spread across the country on recess for the month of August. McConnell plans to continue to have conversations with his members, according to people close to the process. But, already some appear ready to push for more substantial changes. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania who pushed for a comprehensive background check bill after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, announced he had talked to McConnell about resurrecting his legislation. And Rob Portman, a Republican senator from Ohio, still struck by the sudden devastation in Dayton, told reporters now was a time when “we gotta look at everything.”
On the House side, Ohio Republican Rep. Mike Turner, who represents Dayton and whose daughter was across the street when the shooting took place, announced this week he supported “preventing military style weapon sales to civilians, magazine limits, and red flag legislation.”
What’s different this time
It is an unusual moment for the Republican Party and guns. It’s a time when the National Rifle Association is under intense scrutiny, consumed with leadership power grabs and reports of internal strife, leaving questions about how much influence the group will wield heading into 2020 and whether GOP leaders may have more latitude than they have had in the past to push through changes to background checks or other incremental laws without the public blowback that once awaited them from energized NRA members.
McConnell, too, has conservative credentials heading into his 2020 reelection that may give him more room than he has had before. Heading into 2014, McConnell faced a formidable primary challenger in Matt Bevin (whom he eventually easily defeated). Now, his more serious challenger comes in the general election when he will face retired US Marine Corps Lt. Col. Amy McGrath. Even two years ago, in the aftermath of a failed repeal of Obamacare, McConnell had to work hard to remind voters back home he was willing to work alongside Trump. Today, McConnell’s legacy in getting conservative judges confirmed through his chamber and his close relationship with Trump is more apparent.
Still, it’s not just himself he has to look out for. For a handful of endangered Republican members, a vote on gun bills could put them in an uncomfortable position, opening them up to attacks on both their left and right flanks. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, for example, faces a tough reelection in a state where gun violence like the Aurora movie theater shooting and Columbine have become woven into the state’s political identity.
Taking action on guns is a gamble for McConnell and the party, but it is one that could be made far easier with the President’s blessing.
“We have seen time and time again when he lays hands on something, the Republican Party tends to get on board,” Jennings said.
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.