Hope dims for Senate action on guns after frenzied day – Politico
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and fellow Senate Democrats officially relinquished the floor early Thursday morning after spending nearly 15 hours straight talking about gun control, paving the way for high-profile congressional votes on restricting firearms just days after the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Though senators had yet to formally strike a deal, the Senate was likely to vote on two Democratic-backed gun measures: a proposal from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) meant to bar those on federal terror watch lists from obtaining firearms, and a plan from Murphy and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) mandating background checks for sales at gun shows and over the internet. Republicans are expected to put forward two of their own proposals for votes.
Story Continued Below
“We’ve gotten to a place where we’re going to get votes on these important amendments,” Murphy, who had led the rhetorical charge on the Senate floor, said shortly before 1:30 a.m. Thursday. “What would’ve been unacceptable is to spend this entire week on legislative business that was irrelevant to the epidemic of gun violence that has been made more real than ever.”
The Connecticut senator, who had been a leading gun-control advocate in the Senate since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, took to the floor at 11:21 a.m. Wednesday to draw attention to the Democrats’ latest push to crack down on firearms laws. But it was a caucus-wide effort — 38 other Senate Democrats joined Murphy in the filibuster that lasted 14 hours and 50 minutes, with a handful of lawmakers, including Booker and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), standing with Murphy for hours on end.
Murphy formally yielded at 2:11 a.m. Thursday after delivering an emotional tribute to two Sandy Hook victims: 6-year-old Dylan Hockley and a teacher’s aide, Anne Marie Murphy, who was fatally shot while trying to shield Hockley from bullets.
“It doesn’t take courage to stand here on the floor of the United States Senate for two hours or six hours or 14 hours,” Murphy said. “It takes courage to look into the eye of a shooter and instead of running, wrapping your arms around a 6-year-old boy and accepting death.”
The senator continued: “If Anne Marie Murphy could do that, then ask yourself: What can you do to make sure that Orlando or Sandy Hook never, ever happens again?”
As Murphy and other Senate Democrats talked all day Wednesday, however, bipartisan negotiations on gun legislation were breaking down behind closed doors.
In an election year, even something that seems politically unassailable — such as barring potential terrorists from getting weapons — is proving to be an incredibly difficult task. While senators in both parties say they want a solution, the Democrats’ attention-grabbing filibuster may be remembered more vividly than sputtering negotiations aimed at finding a compromise to close the so-called terrorist gun loophole.
“I’m not looking for cover; I’m looking to get something done here,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who was speaking with the pro-gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety about a potential compromise. But Democrats have already rejected that proposal as worse than previous Republican offerings.
At first blush, the Senate on Wednesday seemed ready to take action to try to prevent future killings like last weekend’s massacre of 49 people in Orlando. Even as Democrats planned their lengthy filibuster, Republicans batted around anti-terrorism proposals and both parties were briefed by FBI Director James Comey.
But aides in both parties said there was little real movement by the end of the day, and both sides remained dug in behind their previous positions. Republicans and Democrats developed anti-terror guns proposals in December after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. — and one senior Democratic source said it would be a breakthrough simply to get re-dos on those two failed votes.
“My guess is we’re back to square one,” the source said.
The day began in earnest when Murphy launched a talking filibuster on the Senate floor — which was quickly joined by fellow Democrats — in an effort to pressure Republicans to accept legislation that would deny suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms and require universal background checks.
The Senate is debating a spending bill for the Justice Department, to which Democrats had pushed to offer gun amendments.
“I’m going to remain on this floor until we get some signal, some sign that we can come together on these two measures, that we can get a path forward on addressing this epidemic in a meaningful, bipartisan way,” Murphy said as he launched his filibuster.
Most of the Democratic Caucus was unaware of Murphy’s plans until he took the floor, two senior aides said, though there had been some talk Tuesday about lining up speeches throughout the night Wednesday.
At the same time, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Feinstein explored whether there was common ground on preventing suspected terrorists from buying firearms. Currently, the two parties are backing very different approaches to resolving instances in which someone feels they’ve been wrongly put on a watch list and therefore cannot purchase a gun.
Talks to reconcile those different approaches began on Tuesday, and Cornyn dismissed the Democratic filibuster as “filling the dead air” while the two parties negotiate.
“This is a lot more nuanced than some people appreciate,” Cornyn said in an interview. “We’re trying.”
Late Wednesday afternoon, however, Feinstein signaled that her talks with Cornyn were unlikely to bear fruit.
“I don’t think that’s gonna work out,” Feinstein told reporters. When asked why, she responded: “I was told he gave it to the NRA. Now, that would do it.”
Separately, Toomey was working with the Michael Bloomberg-backed group Everytown on a bipartisan deal to end the loophole. Democrats seemed unmoved, but Toomey vowed to push on: “I don’t think you can assume all Democrats have” rejected the proposal, he said in a brief interview, although Everytown said in a statement it couldn’t yet endorse his bill.
Murphy and the Senate Democrats’ talk-a-thon marked an unusual day in the Senate, which had taken up the spending bill for DOJ, the Commerce Department and related agencies. By refusing to give up the floor, Senate Democrats prevented any amendment votes on the Justice Department spending bill.
As senators entered a classified briefing, Murphy and a handful of his colleagues held the floor, refusing to let the Senate move forward on the spending bill without a gun debate. Booker bucked up the new class of Senate pages, who were preparing for their first late night in the Capitol.
Murphy paced in his dress shoes — not the sneakers that Sen. Rand Paul once laced up for a filibuster. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) railed against the use of “Rambo-style” assault weapons. At one point Wednesday night, Murphy looked up toward his young son Owen — seated in the chamber gallery — and apologized to him for missing pizza night, while telling him: “I hope that you’ll understand someday why we’re doing this.”
Earlier Wednesday, three floors down in the bowels of the Capitol, senators pressed Comey on the different terror watch lists used by the feds, trying to understand how suspected Orlando shooter Omar Mateen was able to obtain his gun despite previous federal investigations, according to one senator who attended.
“The FBI has so many counterterrorism investigations going on all over this country. So the biggest threat is, in fact, the lone wolf right now,” Feinstein said after the briefing.
The Senate talkathon, FBI briefing and backroom talks came the same day presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump tweeted that he would meet with the NRA.
The NRA formally backed an approach favored by Senate Republicans that would allow a judge to arbitrate people who mistakenly end up on the terrorism watch list and want to buy guns, while Democrats prefer giving the Justice Department such authority. Both bills were voted down by the Senate in December.
“If an investigation uncovers evidence of terrorist activity or involvement, the government should be allowed to immediately go to court, block the sale, and arrest the terrorist. At the same time, due process protections should be put in place that allow law-abiding Americans who are wrongly put on a watch list to be removed,” said Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action.
The FBI has also signaled concerns about the general thrust of the Democratic proposal in the past. During testimony to Congress in 2015, Comey indicated that barring someone on the watch list from buying a gun could potentially compromise terror investigations.
“It’s a little bit challenging for us because ‘known or suspected’ means it hasn’t been adjudicated in every case that somebody is a terrorist,” Comey told Feinstein during the hearing last year. “It’s somebody we’re investigating, so we don’t want to, obviously, blow our investigation. Sorry.”
This time around, however, Feinstein anticipated that her proposal wouldn’t be a problem because it contained protections that would prevent disclosing national security investigations, she said. Her legislation would not require the Justice Department to block the sale, but rather give it the powers to do so, an aide said.
The blessing of the NRA caused Republicans to dig in behind Cornyn’s proposal and made it harder for any compromise with Democrats to pass muster.
But Cornyn’s original proposal from last year also included language to defund “sanctuary cities” — a provision he has said he will remove. Including it last year made it impossible for most Democrats to support his proposal, which garnered 55 votes, five short of the 60-vote threshold.
“My hope is we will grow our vote,” Cornyn said.
Cornyn’s plan, however, drew some criticism from Toomey, who has played a key role on gun policy. The senator dismissed both gun measures put forward in the Senate, saying the Democratic plan lacked due process but that Cornyn’s proposal was insufficient, too. The Texas Republican’s plan allows the attorney general to delay a gun purchase for up to three days.
Toomey introduced his own bill, which would require the attorney general to submit terror lists to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, providing a way to overrule the attorney general. But Democrats familiar with the proposal said it would make it harder to block terrorists from buying guns.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) is also discussing a potential compromise with Democrats, according to an aide.