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Gun rider injects a bit of uncertainty into spending bill vote

Backers say the bill will pass, but there's little room for error on either side of the aisle

Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost, D-Fla., isn't sure if he'll support the package during Wednesday's vote.
Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost, D-Fla., isn't sure if he'll support the package during Wednesday's vote. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Concern among House Democrats about a gun-related policy rider in the major fiscal 2024 spending package set to hit the floor this week is growing, buoyed by efforts by activists to call attention to the provision before this week’s vote.

While opposition to the rider is not expected to threaten passage of the $467.5 billion package, any Democratic votes against the bill lessens breathing room House leaders have to pass the measure under the suspension of the rules, which requires two-thirds support.

The House is scheduled to vote on the package Wednesday afternoon, clearing the way for a Senate vote before Friday night’s deadline for several agencies funded in the six-bill fiscal 2024 package, the first of two set for final votes this month.

The gun-related rider would change current law in place since 1993, under which veterans who are unable to manage their finances and benefits are reported to the Justice Department for a background check. Once the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System sees that individual has been deemed incompetent by the Department of Veterans Affairs, they are barred from purchasing guns and ammunition.

Instead, under the provision authored by House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., in that chamber and backed by his Senate counterpart, Jon Tester, D-Mont., veterans seeking to buy firearms but unable to manage their finances could have their cases decided by a judge.

House Republicans framed the rider as a major policy win in the negotiations. However, some legislators and activists oppose the provision, which would allow veterans who have been “adjudicated as a mental defective” by the VA, and may be at risk of suicide, to purchase firearms.

Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost, D-Fla., said the provision’s inclusion in the package was “horrible.” Before arriving in Congress last year, Frost worked as an organizer for March For Our Lives, a student-led gun control advocacy group founded by survivors of the 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

“It’s the largest rollback of background checks since the . . . system was created,” he said. “I’m disappointed that we’re not labeling it a poison pill, which I think it is, but I guess we’re not there as a party yet.”

The anti-gun violence organization named after and founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., came out against the package due to the inclusion of the rider.

“Republicans duck the issue of gun violence and instead blame mental illness, then fight to allow individuals with diminished mental capacity unfettered access to guns,” Vanessa N. Gonzalez, Giffords’ vice president of government and political affairs, said in a statement. “We need leaders in Congress who will stand up for the families and the communities they represent and fight to save lives — even when it’s hard.”

The Biden administration’s statement of administration policy on the bill specifically called out the provision, even though it encouraged lawmakers to pass the bill regardless. Sources say that there is a contingent of progressive Democrats who may vote against the bill due to the language.

But as one House Democratic aide put it, a majority of the conference believes Democratic wins, including funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children and keeping anti-abortion language out of the bill, outweigh the downsides of the rider.

Frost said he’s still weighing how he will vote.

“I think generally Democrats did a good job in the negotiations on the bill itself,” he said. “So I don’t know yet.”

‘Does give me heartburn’

Rep. Linda T. Sánchez, D-Calif., a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she would vote for the spending package, despite deep misgivings about the background check provision.

“If somebody is not mentally competent to handle their own affairs, I don’t think that they have any business holding a firearm,” she said. “I think the bill will pass, albeit that provision does give me heartburn.”

Republicans said the provision would give veterans due process before they are reported to the FBI and barred from purchasing and owning a firearm. Bost said the change in law was “long overdue” in a Sunday statement.

“No veteran should lose their constitutional right to bear arms simply because they need help managing their finances, and if they are a danger to themselves or others, a judge should make that decision — not a VA bureaucrat,” he said.

The provision was included in both the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2024 Military Construction-VA appropriations bill, a factor which made it harder for Democrats to argue against its inclusion in the final package.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., offered an amendment to that chamber’s bill during floor consideration in October that was adopted with support from five senators who caucus with the Democrats — Tester, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jacky Rosen of Nevada; and independents Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Angus King of Maine. Tester is considered one of the chamber’s most vulnerable incumbents this November, while Rosen’s race is also expected to be tough.

“This is a win for Second Amendment rights and for veterans who have made it clear that VA’s current practice is pushing some folks away from accessing the mental health care they need out of fear their firearms will be seized,” Tester said in a statement.

In the House, six Democrats voted in support of Bost’s amendment — Henry Cuellar of Texas, Jared Golden of Maine, Vicente Gonzalez of Texas, Mary Peltola of Alaska, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington and Gabe Vasquez of New Mexico. Gluesenkamp Perez and Vasquez, like Tester in the Senate, are in races rated Toss-ups by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales; Peltola’s race is Tilt Democratic.

Democrats did secure a gun-related victory in the legislation — a seve- year extension of the law that bans so-called “ghost guns,” which the Biden administration mentioned in its statement on the bill.

The measure needs roughly 290 votes to pass the House, depending on how many lawmakers are present. Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., could easily lose 100 votes from his side of the aisle, based on past spending votes this Congress; that makes limiting losses on the Democratic side critical.

Lawmakers leaving meetings in Johnson’s Capitol suite on Tuesday night were of mixed opinions.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Kevin Hern, R-Okla., leader of a large conservative bloc, said he was voting “no,” joining the House Freedom Caucus, which issued a joint statement earlier in the day opposing the 1,050-page bill.

For his part, State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart said he was “pretty confident” the bill would pass.

But Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., wouldn’t opine on whether Johnson would get the “majority of the majority” to vote for it, which is seen as critical to maintaining his continued grip on power within the conference.

Next steps

Lawmakers are continuing to negotiate the details of the second six bill package, which has a March 22 deadline. That package will feature the Defense, Financial Services, Labor-HHS-Education, Legislative Branch, Homeland Security and State-Foreign Operations bills, and could be rolled out as soon as this weekend, according to sources familiar with the talks.

The Homeland Security measure continues to be the most difficult for lawmakers to settle, and appropriators remain far apart on key aspects of that bill, sources say.

“Obviously the bill that is going to be the most difficult is Homeland, but that has been the case all along,” Senate appropriations ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Tuesday. Collins, who never misses a vote, was in attendance despite the death of her mother earlier in the day.

The Defense bill is largely finished. Tester, the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee chair, said the bill is in good shape and will be ready by the March 22 deadline.

David Lerman contributed to this report.

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