House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) vowed he would not bow to pressure to schedule votes on bipartisan gun control legislation in the wake of a 25-hour sit-in late last month on the House floor led by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights icon.
Ryan denounced the widely publicized sit-in as a “publicity stunt” and a Democratic party “fundraising scheme,” and insisted the House would not be forced to consider Democratic measures for expanding background checks on gun buyers or preventing suspected terrorists on government no-fly lists from purchasing guns and semi-automatic weapons. Many House and Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans demanded action in the wake of the June 12 terrorist attack on an Orlando gay night club that killed 49 people and wounded 53 others.
The Senate rejected four separate gun-related measures, including one with substantial bipartisan support aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of suspected terrorists. But Ryan and other House GOP leaders refused to allow any gun-related legislation to come to the floor. “We are not going to allow stunts like this to stop us from carrying out the people’s business,” he declared.
But when Congress returns on Tuesday from its July 4 recess, the House will take up a package of bills related to terrorism and gun violence, a testament to the growing public concern about guns and support for measures including expanded background checks long opposed by the National Rifle Association and other members of the powerful gun lobby.
House GOP leaders have scheduled votes on bills crafted to disrupt terrorist radicalization and recruitment, including a measure to prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns. That provision reportedly will be along the lines of a proposal by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the Senate Majority Whip, that would give federal authorities three days to justify blocking a gun sale by showing probable cause the weapon would end up in the hands of a terrorist.
Cornyn’s proposal failed in the Senate, along with three other bills. Democrats have dismissed the Texan’s plan as impractical and political window dressing. Some Democrats have teamed up with Sen Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, to develop a much tougher measure to block the sale of weapons to people whose names turn up on certain government terrorist watch lists. Individuals blocked from purchasing guns would have the right to appeal the decision and could seek reimbursement from the government for attorney’s fees if they prevail.
While none of the House GOP measures is expected to go anywhere this year, the votes will provide the GOP with political cover as they argue they are attempting to address the growing crisis of domestic gun violence and terrorism.
“I think there’s little doubt that while the Democratic sit-in ended when they adjourned, it’s going to resume when the House comes back,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. Even if the Democrats fail to get their way on legislation, he added, the continued threat of another sit-in that would once again block the House from conducting business, it is placing substantial pressure on Ryan and others to act.
“And the failure to conduct any vote [on gun-related measures] would potentially hurt the Republicans,” he said.
House Republicans may also take up legislation to overhaul the national mental health system to provide added resources and administrative oversight. Many GOP and Democratic lawmakers view expanded health care services as vital in addressing the root causes of gun violence and terrorist acts.
There are competing versions of the mental health legislation in the House and Senate that must be reconciled before the end of the year if legislation is to emerge from Congress. With growing support for such legislation within both parties and from state and federal mental health and law enforcement agencies, Ornstein said “I think there’s a significant chance of passage” this year.
Congress is returning to work with these and many other pressing matters awaiting action. Yet with the Republican and Democratic National Conventions looming in mid-July, an August recess after that and then frequent recesses for campaigning and fundraising before the November election, there is relatively little time remaining in the congressional calendar to pass important legislation and finish work on fiscal 2017 spending bills.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) complained last week at a news conference that Congress will be out of session so much in the run-up to the November presidential and congressional elections that the Senate might beat the 1956 record for the fewest days in session, as The Washington Post noted. “We are working less days than since I was in high school,” said Reid.
Among other must-do measures confronting Congress upon its return:
* A $1.1 billion funding measure to finance a U.S. effort to combat the spread of mosquitos carrying the Zika virus that can cause birth defects in pregnant women. The House has approved the measure, but it was blocked in the Senate last week by Democrats. The Democrats protested Republicans’ inclusion of a number of poison pill amendments, including one that would cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood.
National public health officials and the White House began urging Congress last March to provide funding for Zika virus research and mosquito control in Southern states. Unless the two parties can work out a compromise, final approval might not come for another seven weeks.
* Federal Aviation Administration authorization runs out July 15, with the Senate and House still far apart on a final bill. The Senate version would reauthorize FAA programs through September 2017, and would funnel billions of dollar into a number of important or controversial initiatives, including promoting widespread commercial drone operations, improving airport security and modernizing air space. The House version, among other things, would overhaul domestic Air Traffic Control operations by moving the operations out of the FAA to a non-profit corporation.