Congress is searching for clarity from Trump

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has backed off his call on raising the minimum age for rifle purchases, or at least that's what Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., believes.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., meanwhile, thinks the administration is seriously weighing expanding background checks for gun purchases. Yet Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, a close ally of the White House who has spoken with Trump on the issue, has personally gotten no such indication.

Lawmakers, in other words, have no real idea what President Donald Trump wants from them on gun policy in the wake of the massacre at a South Florida high school.

"It's really unclear what they're for and what they're not for," Murphy, one of the most prominent gun-control advocates on Capitol Hill, said Tuesday. "I don't think there's a secret agenda that they have not released. I think it's just hard. I think they're trying to figure it out."

In advance of the bipartisan gun summit at the White House today, lawmakers are searching for signals from the administration on how it wants Congress to respond to the Feb. 14 shooting and how serious Trump is about the various proposals he has floated in the days since 17 people were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

There is also an open question in Congress over how much Trump will actually affect the debate, with some Senate leaders pushing for more guidance from the president, given his continuing focus on the shootings, while other top senators are skeptical that any guidance from the mercurial president — such as during the stalemate on immigration — will ultimately matter much.

Trump and his senior aides have publicly floated several gun-related proposals since the shooting in Parkland, including legislation to encourage agencies to report relevant information to a federal database used to screen potential gun buyers, banning devices known as "bump stocks" and arming teachers, a controversial proposal Trump has emphasized in his public remarks.

Trump has also discussed raising the minimum age for rifle purchases to 21, despite opposition from the National Rifle Association — a policy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that the president still supports for "certain firearms."

The White House has invited an assortment of lawmakers to today's meeting, including Murphy; Cornyn; Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who co-authored a universal background checks measure in 2013; and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Calif., the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, who wrote the 1994 assault weapons ban.

Sanders said the administration plans to release some policy proposals this week, probably giving some clarity to the GOP-led Congress on where Trump wants to focus and whether there will be any areas of tension between the White House and congressional Republicans — particularly the most conservative lawmakers.

"The president, as you know, has made a number of statements over the past few days," said Sen. John Thune, S.D., the third-ranking Senate Republican. "Him weighing in probably matters quite a bit with a lot of members, and, you know, what he would like to see done. But the Congress is going to work its will on this, like it usually does."

Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., a close Trump ally, said lawmakers want Trump to take the lead on the gun debate.

"I don't think there's any consensus whatsoever that there's anything on, quote, gun control," Collins said. "We're an independent body, and we will do what our members think is best." But, he added, "I would say the president's leadership on this is going to be key; there's no doubt."

Republican leaders have been hesitant to weigh in publicly on how to respond to the Parkland shootings until they know where Trump stands and what policies could be supported by their members.

On Tuesday, neither Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., nor other House GOP leaders would commit to holding a vote on modest gun-related measures that have broad bipartisan support. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wants to pass the Fix NICS Act, meant to improve reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. He also began promoting a separate proposal from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that would provide grants to states for school safety programs, including training to identify threats and improving physical security through such things as improved locks on classroom doors.

The House passed a version of the Fix NICS measure in December, in conjunction with a controversial provision that would force states to recognize concealed-carry licenses from other states. The Senate is exploring passing the background check proposal as a stand-alone measure as soon as this week, but Ryan would not say Tuesday whether he would bring that bill or a ban on bump stocks — devices that allow a semiautomatic rifle to mimic the rapid fire of an automatic weapon — up for a vote.

"We're waiting to see what the Senate can do," he said, adding, "We obviously think the Senate should take our whole bill, but if the Senate cannot do that, then we'll discuss and cross that bridge when we get to it."

Cornyn said that he spoke with Trump over the weekend and that the president has "a lot of ideas" but that he hasn't discussed with him any legislation on background checks broader than the Fix NICS Act. Murphy, meanwhile, said he thinks the White House would be willing to go beyond the bare-bones bill for a more expansive background-check measure.

"There's something stirring over there on background checks," Murphy said. "I just haven't exactly figured out what it is yet."

Democrats said that after years on inaction in Congress after mass shootings, they believe there is momentum to do something substantive, and that even members from states and districts where restrictions on gun purchases have traditionally been unpopular are feeling emboldened.


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