Gun Debate Unfolds Outside of Senate Judiciary Panel’s Confines

Grassley uses White House meeting to brief Trump

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley had scheduled a hearing Monday to hear from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley had scheduled a hearing Monday to hear from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 5, 2018 at 3:00pm

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley used a White House meeting last week to explain to President Donald Trump the panel’s role in getting a consensus and moving legislation dealing with gun violence and school shootings.

But before the Iowa Republican could finish, Trump pivoted right back to negotiating provisions about age restrictions for gun purchases, a proposal championed by two senators who aren’t on the committee, Pennsylvania Republican Patrick J. Toomey and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III.

“You’re going to be a great help. Thanks, Chuck,” Trump said. “I’d just like to ask Joe and Pat, what are you doing about the 18 to 21?”

The exchange last Wednesday was one of many signs that the gun control debate appears likely to follow the same path in the Senate as major efforts on immigration last month and health care last year — one that essentially bypasses the committee of jurisdiction and instead plays out on the floor after some closed-door negotiations, with little time for lawmakers to read or digest the fine print.

Watch: Trump to Lawmakers: ‘I’ll Love You’ If Action Is Taken on Gun Legislation

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Senators say the process is the result of an institutional shift, over many years and under different parties, that concentrates power in leadership offices to the detriment of committees that used to hammer out policy details and work out disputes before make-or-break votes on the floor. The pattern applies particularly to the most politically sensitive issues, as both parties angle for an advantage in the 2018 elections with majority control at stake.

Going MIA

Judiciary Committee Democrats voiced concern last week that the gun issue was one example of a panel gone missing in action on the major topics where it should be leading — in addition to issues such as Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and immigration. They urged Grassley to seize back control.

Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin, who has stressed these points for weeks, said Thursday that the committee held three hearings and a robust markup on legislation after 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2013.

In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that killed 17 on Feb. 14 and sparked upward of 10 proposals discussed at the White House, Durbin said, “This committee today is silent when it comes to legislative activity.”

[Republicans Irate, Democrats Press After Trump Gun Control Meeting]

“So how many hearings have been scheduled on any of these ideas? How will we actually promote legislation? Will it drop from the heavens, or from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.?” Durbin asked at a committee meeting last week. “Or will we do our job and sit down and draw up a bill, bring it to the floor, allow it to be subjected to amendment, debate, as the Senate once did regularly as part of the regular order?”

Grassley, who has had the gavel since 2015, told Durbin he was wrong. The committee held a hearing in December after a shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and focused on the national background check system for gun purchases and bump stocks, an attachment that can make a semiautomatic weapon fire faster.

Grassley secured briefings on gun issues that committee staff could attend, a staffer said, and such briefings are important to identify issues that may require legislative action. And the chairman had announced, just before Durbin spoke, a March 14 hearing on the Parkland shooting and school safety.

But there’s no indication yet that the panel will mark up any gun bills, and Trump concluded the White House meeting by directing certain lawmakers to put together a comprehensive proposal. Days later, it’s unclear what legislation Trump ultimately will back, what bill might reach the floor, or whether there will be a vote at all.

Immigration debate

The immigration votes on the Senate floor were another sign of the disconnect between the Judiciary Committee and the floor. In 2013, Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, held three hearings and four days of markups on a bipartisan immigration bill that ultimately passed the Senate with 68 votes.

The committee to date hasn’t had a hearing or markup on an issue that is one of the administration’s top priorities. Grassley told the panel Thursday that he wants to spend his time “on being productive.”

“I think spending three months on immigration, passing something the House isn’t going to do, doesn’t accomplish anything,” he said.

As the Senate struggled this year for a deal on the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and border security funding, Grassley put forward an immigration proposal based on Trump’s framework. It fared the worst of four measures that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell queued up for a vote last month, and was rejected by a procedural vote of 39-60.

“It’s common for proposals that demand immediate consideration to move directly to the floor rather than being drawn out in committee,” Grassley spokesman Taylor Foy said. “This was the process during the DACA debate — a process that members on both sides agreed to and participated in.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a committee member and key player on immigration issues, said he would have preferred to do something on DACA through the committee, but that’s “a sign of the times.”

“I think committee products probably fare better than something brought directly to the floor, but we are where we are,” the South Carolina Republican said. “I don’t mind doing something in the committee on guns, that’s actually a pretty good idea.”

Sen. Chris Coons, who also serves on Judiciary, said the lack of committee involvement was part of the problem on immigration.

“I think part of why we had such an ultimately unsuccessful, truncated floor debate about immigration two weeks ago is we didn’t have the hearings in committee beforehand to engage and educate a broader range of members and to refine the proposals,” the Delaware Democrat said. “And I’m concerned we’re going to end up in the same place on the many proposals floating around about how to deal with gun violence.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal also urged panel action. The Connecticut Democrat said the committee process “assures the details of a new law are carefully considered before they become the law of the land, which is pretty significant.”

Finding compromise

Grassley did stick to the committee’s regular order last month on a bipartisan bill to overhaul the federal criminal justice system — declining to strip out provisions forged after months of negotiations even though the Trump administration has signaled opposition.

The committee voted 16-5 to approve the legislation, as Grassley voiced his annoyance at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former Judiciary member, for writing a letter to say the administration was opposed to the bill. Grassley’s comments also serve as a reminder of how challenging moving a bill through committee can be.

“I know friends can disagree on issues, but this is something that he knows where I stood,” Grassley said at that markup. “He knows how hard it was to work out this compromise” between Republicans and Democrats.