A couple of weeks after they failed to make progress in a supposedly free-wheeling debate over immigration, the Senate returned to Washington on Monday afternoon facing an imminent debate on another delicate issue: guns. As of Monday night, the prospect of Senate votes on gun legislation in the near future is surprisingly optimistic. Which is not to say the outcomes are assured, in the least.
Before any votes on gun legislation, Senate norms dictate that the institution spend one hundred million hours jousting over procedure.
Senate Republicans would be fine to pass the Fix NICS Act by itself, a bill co-authored by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn that would beef up the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NCIS), and then return to their regular agenda of confirming judges and administrative personnel.
“I’m for doing what’s achievable,” Cornyn told reporters Monday. He added that quickly passing the Fix NICS Act is the most “obvious” place to start.
Though that bill would have enough support to pass, that doesn’t mean everyone is onboard. Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, for example, told reporters that incentivizing states and departments with more money to properly report information into the background check database isn’t the right remedy; firing people for not doing their jobs is. Kennedy said that rather than more “gun control,” what we need is further “idiot control.”
Democrats wouldn’t accept a quick vote on Fix NICS without the possibility of votes on other gun measures. Specifically, they’re looking at a revived version of the Manchin-Toomey proposal that failed in 2013, which would have expanded background checks to cover gun shows and online sales. The two senators behind that bill, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey and West Virginia Sen. Manchin, have been planning another effort, and hope to present something to President Trump that he can support. Trump’s endorsement, Manchin told me Monday, is necessary for the bill “to have a chance.”
“If all Congress does in response to the Parkland shooting is to pass the Fix NICS bill, it would be an abject failure and a dereliction of our duty,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement Monday afternoon. “Democrats believe that, at a minimum, the Congressional response to the Parkland shooting should include universal background check legislation that would close the gun show and internet sales loopholes that allow guns to fall into the wrong hands.”
Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who became the Senate Democrats’ leading voice on guns after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, put that posture more plainly to reporters. “I support Fix NICS,” he said of the bill he co-authored, “but it can’t be the only thing we debate this week. And I’m not going to support Fix NICS being rushed through the floor without talking about expanding background checks, assault weapons, or a host of other issues.”
Democrats want an open floor debate during which they could vote on expanding background checks, an assault weapons ban, raising the minimum age for all firearms purchases to 21, and whatever else they might cook up. If those failed, and the only thing the Senate could find consensus on was the Fix NICS Act, then Democrats would grudgingly support it.
Fortunately, at least one member of the Senate leadership appeared ready to offer Democrats such a debate on Monday. Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt said Monday that the best way forward would be to put the Fix NICS Act on the floor and allow for amendments. “That’d be my view,” he told reporters. “Get a bill on the floor and … see what happens.”
Shortly thereafter, Cornyn, according to Bloomberg, said discussions were underway about opening a gun debate, with multiple votes, on the floor as early as this week. After a grand, open, neutral, sprawling debate on immigration, the Senate could be immediately pivoting to the same on gun control. It’s not obvious that it could produce a much grander result.