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Senate's midterm calculations could scuttle gun debate before it begins

As Congress returns to Washington this week, a sweeping and polarizing debate on guns is waiting for them, and lawmak...

Posted: Feb 26, 2018 12:33 PM
Updated: Feb 26, 2018 12:33 PM

As Congress returns to Washington this week, a sweeping and polarizing debate on guns is waiting for them, and lawmakers must decide if it's one they're willing to tackle just months ahead of the midterm elections.

Control of the Senate is up for grabs, though Democrats face a steep climb to regain the majority as they have 10 seats in states President Donald Trump won that they must defend. The thin margin for control in the chamber is a powerful force pressuring both sides in the coming weeks as they decide how far they're willing to go -- if anywhere -- on addressing gun violence and mass shootings.

Pushed by Trump to do something, Republicans could be forced to choose between the President's wishes and some of the National Rifle Association's red lines.

Trump spent last week in listening sessions with survivors of the Parkland, Florida, shooting and with law enforcement officials. But Capitol Hill aides say a key factor in whether they push to change gun laws is whether Trump -- who is prone to changing his mind on policy priorities and careening abruptly from one topic to another -- will remain focused this week on the issue.

Democrats in those Trump states -- as well as some in leadership -- must also consider the political ramifications of a gun debate, leaving open the question of whether lawmakers will engage this week.

"Until the majority leader speaks, I don't think anybody should assume there is going to be any debate," Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut told CNN on Friday, referencing the role Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky would have to play for the chamber to act on guns.

RELATED: Congress' Republican leaders silent so far on Trump's gun proposals

Background checks gets new push

While Trump has encouraged lawmakers to look at background checks and raising the legal age to purchase rifles from 18 to 21, it is Senate and House leaders who will make the ultimate call on what comes to the floor of their respective chambers. Republicans and Democrats will each huddle for the respective party lunches on Tuesday, which may be the earliest indication of whether Congress plans to act on even narrow proposals.

Murphy told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union" Sunday that he was encouraged by Trump's supportive statements on comprehensive background checks.

"I'm not sure if he knows what that means," Murphy said. "That generally means universal background checks applying to all commercial sales, but he has not backtracked on that tweet since he made it."

Murphy has partnered with Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, on legislation that aims to shore up compliance in reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. According to Cornyn, there is a bipartisan conversation underway about whether the Senate could get agreement to vote on the so-called Fix NICS bill as soon as Monday, which could limit debate and hold off tough amendments on both sides of the aisle, but that would require every single member of the Senate to agree to bring it up.

For now, it appears that any gun debate would likely include just modest changes to gun laws, like the proposal to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System by incentivizing states and agencies to more readily include valuable records into the system.

The House already passed that bill in December although it was attached to another proposal that would allow individuals with concealed carry permits to transport their guns across state lines. The concealed carry bill would likely be dead on arrival in the Senate.

Cornyn signals opposition to changing gun age limit

While some Republican senators, like Florida's Marco Rubio and Kansas' Pat Roberts, have signaled a willingness to raise the age at which individuals can purchase rifles from 18 to 21, other key leaders have broken with Trump.

"I think what we want to focus on is things that will actually save lives," Cornyn, the GOP vote counter, told CNN on Friday when asked if he supported raising the age limit. "That's why I think the focus should be on the Fix NICS bill, which is the only bipartisan piece of legislation that can be signed into law."

"There are a lot of other ideas out there that people are proposing and that I don't think will actually change any outcomes," he added.

Cornyn, who was in the Capitol on Friday to preside over a brief pro forma session, said he thought an age restriction would be problematic if an 18-year-old Marine or police officer were told he or she could not buy a gun.

"I can see that it would be difficult to enforce. I'm not sure why we would go to those lengths when I don't think that gets to the root of the problem," he said.

What's different this time

Senators have been through this debate before. In 2012, after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which left 26 dead, including 20 children, the Senate tried and failed to ban assault weapons, to limit the size of high-capacity magazines and require more background checks. Lawmakers failed even with a Democratic president and Democratic Senate in part because of opposition from red state Democrats.

"There are always political ramifications with these votes," said Mike Saccone, a former aide to former Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado. "I don't think the politics around the issue have gotten any less difficult."

A calculation will still have to be made about whether Democrats want to enter into an unpredictable gun debate that could end with little more than a narrow bill to fix the criminal background check system.

"It's better to get that bill passed than not to get it passed," one Democratic Senate aide told CNN. "We should do this either way."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, one of two Democratic senators from Minnesota seeking to keep their jobs this year in a state Hillary Clinton won by fewer than two percentage points, says she would like to see the Senate vote on a ban of assault-style weapons. She told NBC over the weekend that residents in her state "understand as law-abiding gun owners that we need to make change."

"And I think these students are going to lead the way and we're going to finally see some action," Klobuchar said Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press." "And when I had those Sandy Hook parents in my office, and they told their stories, and you think about the courage they had to come forward on a simple background check bill, and then the Congress didn't have the courage to pass it, I don't think you're going to see that happen again."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 265146

Reported Deaths: 5777
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17741191
Hinds16891332
Harrison14279204
Rankin11239220
Jackson10917190
Lee9071145
Madison8599169
Jones6731118
Forrest6208124
Lauderdale6121192
Lowndes5544120
Lafayette520598
Lamar505865
Washington4933125
Bolivar4126109
Oktibbeha408382
Panola386981
Pontotoc377460
Monroe3686110
Warren3685103
Marshall357170
Union356864
Pearl River3495106
Neshoba3490154
Leflore3118109
Lincoln306788
Hancock294262
Sunflower291975
Tate280662
Alcorn273154
Pike270181
Itawamba269363
Scott260048
Yazoo256756
Prentiss253754
Coahoma249755
Copiah249749
Tippah249750
Simpson242872
Leake238167
Marion224273
Grenada223972
Covington221073
Adams215171
Wayne213734
Winston207671
George204739
Newton199946
Attala197064
Tishomingo194961
Chickasaw189344
Jasper181138
Holmes172068
Clay166837
Tallahatchie157235
Stone152525
Clarke148162
Calhoun141322
Smith130026
Yalobusha123335
Walthall114537
Greene113729
Noxubee113026
Montgomery112036
Carroll106822
Lawrence106817
Perry105131
Amite102126
Webster96824
Tunica89021
Claiborne88825
Jefferson Davis88430
Benton85823
Humphreys84724
Kemper80920
Quitman7139
Franklin70617
Choctaw63713
Wilkinson59825
Jefferson56821
Sharkey45217
Issaquena1606
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 441170

Reported Deaths: 6660
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson646811007
Mobile31620572
Madison28310217
Tuscaloosa21525275
Montgomery19954332
Shelby19335132
Baldwin17256189
Lee13205107
Morgan12639142
Etowah12107181
Calhoun11521206
Marshall10471123
Houston9009164
Limestone834981
Cullman8274124
Elmore8214110
DeKalb7894107
Lauderdale7871107
St. Clair7854130
Talladega6481112
Walker6036183
Jackson601545
Colbert549994
Blount547386
Autauga537662
Coffee462464
Dale410785
Franklin374950
Russell357515
Chilton345473
Covington339680
Escambia335444
Tallapoosa3149109
Dallas313296
Chambers304270
Clarke300236
Pike262531
Lawrence254155
Marion253761
Winston233642
Bibb222348
Geneva211547
Marengo209331
Pickens199631
Hale185244
Barbour182738
Fayette178629
Butler174460
Cherokee165731
Henry159925
Monroe152421
Randolph146436
Washington142327
Clay130546
Crenshaw124045
Macon122337
Cleburne121825
Lamar120222
Lowndes115536
Wilcox107922
Bullock103528
Perry100018
Conecuh97922
Sumter90527
Greene77923
Coosa63618
Choctaw51924
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