The GOP leaders in the House and Senate took starkly different tacks Tuesday in their responses to the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that has reinvigorated a national debate about guns.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), holding a one-vote majority and seeking to win seats in states such as Florida this fall, embraced centrism, saying the Senate should focus on legislation that can pass.
He pointed to a bill sponsored by Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn(Texas) and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.) that would improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which Democrats see as too modest a response to the Florida shooting.
“We should try to make some progress on bills that we agree on,” McConnell said. “What Sen. Cornyn is suggesting is to take something we all agree on — not in any way claiming it’s a panacea — but at least show some progress toward dealing with one element of the problem.”
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), in contrast, downplayed the need to pass legislation and said House lawmakers are more interested in investigating multiple law enforcement mistakes that allowed the 19-year-old charged in the shooting, Nikolas Cruz, to operate unimpeded.
Ryan slammed law enforcement for missing warning signs in a “colossal breakdown,” and called into question the need to pass new laws before first finding out what happened.
“We need to get to the bottom of how these breakdowns occurred,” Ryan said. “We are going to be looking at the system failures.”
McConnell’s and Ryan’s diverging approaches reflect their differing political positions and priorities.
By calling for a vote on a narrow proposal to improve background checks, McConnell is daring Democrats to block it — a move he would seek to make incumbents up for reelection, such as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), pay for.
He blamed Democrats on Tuesday for blocking a motion to proceed quickly to the Cornyn-Murphy bill, even though a Republican, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, objected on Monday to a unanimous consent request to move to it.
Ryan, meanwhile, is under heavy pressure from conservatives not to go too far. While President Trump has offered public support for some gun control measures, including raising the minimum age to 21 for purchasing rifles, Ryan and other House Republicans on Tuesday had a different message.
“Here’s what makes me mad: All these proposals don’t address the problem,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “There was like 36 times this kid interacted with government. It looks like the sheriff’s office didn’t do their job.
“And now the answer is more government?”
The sentiments are much different in the Senate Republican Conference, where leaders feel they are under pressure to pass legislation, even if it’s a modest step, to show they are addressing a problem that has seized the national spotlight. They discussed the issue at length during a lunch meeting Tuesday.
“There’s a recognition that we have to do something,” said one Republican senator, summarizing the talks within the conference.
Another GOP senator noted that survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and other students from around the country plan to march in Washington at the end of next month.
Republican senators would like to show some progress on gun violence at schools before then.
McConnell and other Senate GOP leaders are rallying behind the Cornyn-Murphy bill, which would give local and federal authorities more incentive to report relevant information to the national background check database.
They are still discussing what to do about other proposals, such as raising the age requirement for buying rifles, banning bump stocks and barring suspected terrorists from buying firearms.
McConnell has signaled support for a bill sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch(R-Utah) that would provide Justice Department grants to train law enforcement, teachers and students in preventing school violence.
“We ought to be able to harden those schools and protect our youngsters,” he said.
That’s a bill that might also win the support of Trump, who has spoken several times since the shooting of the need to “harden” schools.
Senate Democrats say McConnell’s plan falls far short of what’s needed.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) backs the proposal to improve reporting to the background check database but wants to dramatically expand background checks to cover sales by persons who are not licensed dealers at gun shows and over the internet.
Schumer said Democrats will press for votes on a range of proposals, including the implementation of universal background checks, although he declined to discuss details.
“We in Congress have an obligation to pass meaningful gun safety legislation that will save lives and tackle as many of the loopholes and problems with our gun laws as we can,” he told reporters.
He called the Fix NICS bill backed by McConnell only “a modest step designed to address one component of gun safety.”
“If that is all Congress does, we won’t have done our job to keep America’s families safe,” he said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who spoke alongside Schumer at the leadership press conference, said proposals to ban bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic rifles to fire more rapidly, and to restrict the sale of assault-style rifles are also on the table.