Senate Democrats held the Senate floor for hours on Wednesday threatening to hold up a spending bill as they sought new gun restrictions, while vulnerable Republicans signaled willingness to compromise on proposals to bar suspected terrorists from purchasing weapons.
Three days after a shooter used an assault rifle to kill 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Connecticut Senator Christopher Murphy said he was prepared to stand “as long as I can” to force consideration of two gun-related amendments. One would bar purchases of weapons by anyone on the terrorist watch list and another would aim to extend background checks to cover weapons sold at gun shows.
“I’m prepared to stand on this floor and talk about the need for this body to come together on keeping terrorists from getting guns,” Murphy said Wednesday on the Senate floor. Murphy said he will speak “for frankly as long as I can, because I know that we can come together on this issue.”
Murphy and other Democrats began their extended speeches before noon in Washington, and continued well into the evening.
Their move came after Republican senators in tough re-election fights — Rob Portman of Ohio, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — started to indicate that the Senate should try to agree on a mechanism to keep guns out of the hands of suspected terrorists.
“I support the concept” of barring suspected terrorists “who are legitimately on the watch list” from getting guns, Portman told reporters. “There is a consensus around this place that if you are on a terrorist watch list you shouldn’t get a gun, so let’s try to figure it out.”
Ayotte told reporters that she favors “addressing people who are on the terror watch list” though it should be done “in a way that assures there is due process.” Johnson said Republicans are amenable to discussing the issue with Democrats “but they’ve got to be willing to work with us.”
“Obviously no Republican wants a terrorist to get access to a firearm, but there has to be some due process,” said Johnson.
Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, who is also in a competitive race, briefly joined the Democrats on the floor Wednesday and called for a compromise between what Democrats have been demanding and what Republicans have offered in the past.
“There’s an opportunity here, guys, to work together and find the solution,” he said. Later Wednesday, Toomey said he would introduce a new bill on Thursday that would allows the attorney general to create a list of “likely terrorists” who could be denied the ability to purchase a gun, with prior judicial review of the list.
But Chuck Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, said Wednesday afternoon that “all the compromises” offered so far by Republicans are “not at all acceptable” to Democrats.
A spokesman for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized Democrats for their extended speeches. Murphy’s effort “prevents the Senate from processing any amendments, including amendments he supports, as well as efforts proposed by Republicans to help prevent terrorist attacks here at home,” David Popp said in an e-mailed statement.
Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association indicated Wednesday that a meeting may be in the work to discuss barring suspected terrorists from buying firearms.
“We are happy to meet with Donald Trump. The NRA’s position on this issue has not changed,” said Chris Cox, a top lobbyist for the group.
“The NRA believes that terrorists should not be allowed to purchase or possess firearms, period,” Cox said. “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.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats will push a provision to empower the attorney general to block firearms sales if she has a reasonable belief the guns would be used in a terrorist attack.
Reid told reporters he intends force a vote on the proposal as an amendment to H.R. 2578, the legislative vehicle for the Senate’s Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill that’s being debated this week. He didn’t specify how he would force consideration of the gun amendment, but Democrats could extend their speech-making session into a more formal filibuster to block advancement of the bill.
McConnell on Tuesday described his conference as open to considering proposals by FBI Director James Comey, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and others in law enforcement because “nobody wants terrorists to have firearms.” Comey and Johnson are scheduled to brief senators Wednesday on the FBI’s investigation into the Orlando massacre.
Republicans would “try to work with the Democrats to try to come up with something that’s actually a solution,” Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas told reporters. But he accused Democrats of “trying to opportunistically use this as a way to advance their gun-control debate rather than solve the problem.”
Portman, Ayotte and Johnson were among 53 Republicans who voted against a proposal by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein to bar suspected terrorists from purchasing guns in December.
North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp was the lone Democrat who voted with Republicans to defeat that amendment. It was offered in the wake of the Dec. 2 San Bernardino, California, shooting in which a gunman who pledged allegiance to Islamic State terrorist group and his wife killed 14 people and injured 21 others. The FBI has treated it as an act of terror.
Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, perhaps the most vulnerable Republican seeking re-election in November, was the only member of his party to support that measure.
Portman and other Republicans supported an alternative by Cornyn that would delay the sale for 72 hours before requiring the Justice Department to obtain an injunction by convincing a court that there was probable cause to believe the would-be purchaser was a suspected or known terrorist.
The Ohio lawmaker said he still prefers Cornyn’s approach because it affords more “due process” for people who may be erroneously on a watch list. Portman noted that the Orlando gunman, Omar Mateen, was not on the FBI’s watch list when he purchased the guns he used to storm the gay nightclub.
Democrats argue that Cornyn’s proposal would require the government to meet an unrealistic standard of proof and could compromise counter-terrorism investigations.
“The experts that have taken a look at this have determined that Senator Cornyn’s bill would do very little” to stop people who are on the watch list from buying a gun, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
Toomey, in his brief floor appearance, said that Feinstein’s approach “doesn’t provide any meaningful opportunity to appeal one’s being put on this list erroneously” and that Cornyn’s “probably” doesn’t give the attorney general the opportunity needed “to make the case against someone who actually is a terrorist.”
Feinstein and Cornyn have been discussing how to find a compromise between their approaches. “We want to do it in a way that’s constitutional,” Cornyn spokesman Drew Brandewie said.
Feinstein told reporters she has incorporated new language in her proposal that would cover anyone who had been under investigation for terrorism in the past five years before trying to purchase a gun. That change would cover Mateen’s gun purchases, she told reporters.
But Schumer said the compromises offered by Republicans so far are not acceptable because they still contain “all kinds of hoops and ladders you have to jump through” to place someone on the watch list, “which makes the list virtually untenable.”