Pat Toomey thinks the Senate can get to 60 votes on expanding background checks on firearm sales. Lindsey Graham says a deal on red flag laws is imminent. And the White House has briefed senators on what options are on the table.
But everyone is still waiting on one person: President Donald Trump.
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The Senate left Tuesday evening with no clear indication of what the next steps would be on gun legislation, in the aftermath of several mass shootings during the August recess. Nevertheless, senators involved in gun negotiations said they firmly believed the White House would come through with a proposal soon.
Among the proposals being discussed: Expanding background checks, grants for states to implement red flag laws, legislation from Sens. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) that would alert local authorities if people fail background checks and crackdowns on straw purchases.
“He’s been interested, he’s been engaged, he’s been asking good questions. I don’t think it’s talking out of school, the president is not a gun aficionado," Toomey said of the president.
Toomey added that "support from the president is going to be essential but with that support I really think we can get to the 60 votes we need" on background checks.
Toomey has discussed tweaking his legislation to make it easier for private sellers for internet or newspaper sales to perform background with licensed firearms dealers, which can be long distances from people in rural areas. He told reporters on Tuesday that he is open to changing his bill with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to expand background checks if it helps increase support.
Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday that he’d “like to be able to” support Manchin-Toomey and is hopeful that his own so-called red flag bill with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) will be part of a broader White House package. Toomey said only noncontroversial items should be included in the package so as not to sink his six-year effort to expand background checks.
Notably, a number of Republicans have stayed flexible on their positioning as the gun debate has unfolded over the past month. Though there would certainly be significant divisions among the GOP, there are enough members advocating for some sort of action to keep prospects alive, if at the whims of an erratic president.
“The chance to get a deal is now. We haven't had a better chance in a number of years, so we better find common ground. How far we can go I don't know," said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “I don't want to tell people there’s nothing we can do when we damn well know there’s got to be something we can do."
“It would be welcome to have the president indicate specifically what he would support," said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). That would be a feature that would not only inform but also give some Republicans in elections [next] year the kind of political support they might need."
The Graham-Blumenthal proposal, which has yet to be released, would provide grants for states to establish their own red flag laws, under which a family member or law enforcement official could petition a court to remove weapons from an individual who may be a threat to themselves or to others. Both lawmakers are optimistic their legislation will be done soon.
"Everybody's trying to get something done that would matter,” Graham said. "It's not going to be the perfect bill but I think it'd be a good bill."
"We're down to the 5-yard line," Blumenthal said. "We're very close. We have a couple of issues to resolve ... . We have a historic opportunity that folks on both sides of the aisle want to seize and the key is the president."
Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) met with actress and liberal activist Alyssa Milano and Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was killed in Parkland, Fla. Cruz deemed it a "positive, civil discussion" and said Congress needs to do something: "We need to act."
White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland spoke to senators on Tuesday afternoon about the prospects, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) met with Trump personally about the fall agenda. McConnell said afterward the meeting went well but did not provide any specifics.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise returned from the White House without any new signs that Trump is eyeing sweeping action on guns, and with little hope of compromise with Democrats. Scalise confirmed that Trump is still in talks with congressional leaders. But the No. 2 House Republican also disparaged Democrats for their efforts to move ahead with other gun control bills.
“There might be other laws that we can get an agreement on. But the other concern is, do the Democrats actually want to solve problems? Or do they want to just be more aggressive in taking away people’s guns?” Scalise told a gaggle of reporters Tuesday night.
The group, including Attorney General William Barr, did discuss gun background checks, Scalise said, but it mostly focused on the “gaps in our current laws” — rhetoric that echoes the GOP’s long-time resistance to expanding background checks or adding other limits on gun access.
No one could offer any prediction of where Trump might come down.
"He's open to doing something in this space. And from my conversations with him and confirmed by his staff, he has not made a decision regarding exactly what he’s going to support," said Toomey, who estimated he's spoken to Trump a half-dozen times over the past month.
Despite the hope for a bipartisan solution on guns, Senate Republican and Democratic leadership attacked each other while Trump deliberates. McConnell, whose stance on gun legislation is whatever Trump supports, accused Democrats of pulling a “stunt” Monday, when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) held a press conference calling for the Senate to take up the House-passed universal background checks bill. Republicans generally oppose that bill.
“They are working on coming up with a proposal that the president will sign,” McConnell said referring to White House staff. “Until that happens, all of this is theatrics.”
Schumer was unmoved.
“Shame on him,” Schumer responded. “There are people who died. Shame on him. Put the bill on the floor and stop ducking the issue.”
Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.