Gun safety theatrics could come to Congress during Tuesday pro forma sessions

Neither House nor Senate expected to return any time soon

Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey says an immediate vote on his background checks bill would be “counterproductive.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey says an immediate vote on his background checks bill would be “counterproductive.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 5, 2019 at 3:28pm

Updated 4:45 p.m. | Democratic lawmakers itching for action on gun safety legislation will get their first chances to make some noise on Tuesday.

That’s when the House and Senate are scheduled to begin holding pro forma sessions, with no legislative business expected in either chamber until a full week after Labor Day in September. However, there’s a long history of members of Congress using the brief moments when the floors of the two chambers open for business during the August recess to engage in a bit of theater.

The most notable example was back in the summer of 2008, when the House Republican minority spoke in the chamber, with the lights off and lawmakers gaveled out of session, to protest what they saw as a lack of action on high gas prices.

The Senate’s brief session is scheduled for Tuesday at 9 a.m., with the House in line to follow at 3:30 p.m. It will be the first time the chambers will be in session since the two deadly shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, over the weekend.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a “Dear Colleague” letter Monday afternoon that Democrats will “make full use of” pro forma sessions, telephone town halls and public events in Washington and across the country to update the American people on possible legislative solutions to gun violence.

As for bringing the full House back to Washington, Pelosi suggested that will only happen if the Senate is willing to pass something.

“The House stands ready to return to pass legislation, if the Senate sends us back an amended bipartisan bill or if other legislation is ready for House action,” the California Democrat said. 

During a Democratic Caucus conference call earlier Monday, Pelosi told her members that she had touched base this weekend with some of the families of victims of previous incidences of gun violence who want to put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring up a House-passed bill to expand background checks for gun purchases. 

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“They’re not into politics. They’re into policy, and that’s exactly where they should be. And they urge us to help — to give us guidance on how we go forward,” she said, according to a Democratic aide on the call.

Pelosi noted the press release she and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer put out Monday morning, calling for the Senate to come back into session to pass the background check bill.

“This is where we have to go,” she said. “And, the President and Mitch McConnell have to feel the public sentiment on this. We have a golden opportunity to save lives.”

Pelosi again emphasized the House background check bill in her letter, but she also noted that House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said on the call that his panel may take action during the recess on other gun violence prevention legislation, including a bill to encourage states to adopt red flag laws that would allow the courts to temporarily seize firearms from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, who has long been the lead Republican on a bipartisan background checks bill with West Virginia Democrat. Joe Manchin III, is again calling for action on his legislation, but he does not agree with the calls for the Senate’s immediate return.

“I don’t think we’d accomplish anything if we did, and it might end up actually being counterproductive,” he told reporters.

Rather, Toomey said he would be working to try to build GOP support.

“My view is, if we have enough support in the Senate, then we ought to have a vote,” he said. “I intend to do everything I can to persuade Sen. McConnell, if that’s necessary.”

In a joint statement, Manchin and Toomey said they each spoke to President Donald Trump about background checks on Monday.

Congressional leaders would not need to call a “special session” in the literal sense this month in the event of an actual bipartisan agreement. The two chambers are technically in session right now, and their leaders have the capability to schedule whatever legislation for consideration that they like. 

While the focus will be on the Senate since the Democrat-led House has already passed background check legislation this Congress, some Democrats are not just calling for the Senate to come back from recess.

“Congress should cancel its August recess so that the Senate can bring up the bills that the House has already passed, and so the House can consider additional measures to address this crisis, including the Assault Weapons Ban, which I introduced earlier this year,” Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline said in a statement.

“As we have seen time and time again, it is far too easy for bad people to buy guns in our country,” said Cicilline, the chairman of the House Democrats’ messaging arm. “Congress must act now.”

An immediate return would be difficult, with members of both parties taking part in long-planned travel this week. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer is leading a delegation of 41 House Democrats to Israel and the Palestinian territories through Sunday. The agenda includes meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Seeing the region firsthand and meeting with key Israeli and Palestinian leaders gives Members insights into a region that is vital both to our own national interests and to global security,” Hoyer said in a statement.

Starting next week, however,  a few members will have some committee work to do. Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson announced on Monday’s caucus conference call that his panel will begin a series of hearings next week to address the national and personal security threat of white supremacy and domestic terrorism.

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