Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and members of his caucus are tiptoeing toward legislation addressing gun violence amid deep anxiety over eroding GOP support in suburbs across the country.
Expanded background checks and other modest proposals to address gun violence have strong support among swing voters in the suburbs, whom McConnell sees as crucial to keeping control of Republican-held swing Senate seats.
Republican sources close to McConnell say he sees a political benefit to moving a bipartisan measure in response to a spate of mass shootings this year, and that he acknowledges the politics surrounding expanded background checks have shifted in recent months.
A Senate Republican aide said “the suburbs are key” in describing the dynamics on gun legislation.
“House Republicans got rocked in the suburbs in the last election,” the aide added, referring to the key demographic change that fueled the Democratic takeover of the House in 2018.
It is unclear exactly what Republicans in the Senate might embrace, in part because it is unclear what President Trump can accept.
McConnell doesn’t want to allow any daylight to emerge between Senate Republicans and Trump, who maintains an approval rating among Republican voters north of 80 percent.
He and other Republicans want Trump to provide political cover so they can pass a package with reduced risk of an angry backlash from their right flank.
A Republican senator said McConnell sees a “political benefit” in moving legislation in response to the shootings but does not want to work endlessly on legislation to no avail.
“There’s no sense in spending precious hours, precious days on the calendar on a bill that the president might or might not sign. There’s no reason to go through that exercise,” said the GOP senator. “But if the president has signaled a willingness to sign a specific piece of legislation, then I think the leader sees a benefit in taking that up.”
Republican senators say a proposal to expand background checks which was authored in the past by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is one possibility.
Trump endorsed expanded background checks after the Parkland shooting in Florida early last year before reversing himself and backing away from the proposal.
“We’re trying to figure out what’s feasible and what would actually make a difference,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters Monday evening.
Asked what policy proposals addressing gun violence could win enough support in both chambers and make it to the president’s desk for a signature, Cornyn said: “It’s too early to say.”
He also poured some cold water on Manchin-Toomey, telling reporters that “I think we’ve moved on.”
“I’m not adverse to that, to considering, to voting on it, but there are a lot of other things that would be in the mix,” he added.
He said White House officials are expected to present gun-violence policy options to Trump later in the week.
McConnell has asked several chairmen within his conference, Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (Miss.) — as well as Cornyn, a senior member of the Judiciary panel — to explore policy proposals that could form the basis of a gun-violence bill.
McConnell called his chairmen after the mass shootings last month in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, to get them to begin thinking about possible legislation.
A Republican senator, who requested anonymity to handicap the chances of Trump coming out in support of expanded background checks or other gun-control reforms that could win Democratic support, said there’s a “50-50 chance” the president endorses expanded background checks.
“There’s a real effort to try to get him decide what he’ll be for and to let us know,” the senator said.
Democrats are skeptical that Trump will break with the National Rifle Association (NRA) after his Parkland reversal.
Told that Republicans say McConnell sees moving gun-violence legislation as politically beneficial, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, “That’s a shocker.”
Durbin said where Trump will wind up on the issue is completely unpredictable.
“The president has switched his position on this so often, I have no idea where he stands, but it’s time for the Senate to be the Senate and stop waiting for permission from the White House,” he said.
Republicans are also wary of putting themselves in conflict with the NRA, a powerful special interest and grassroots lobbying group that has long had a fearsome reputation in Washington.
Senate and House GOP leaders are scheduled to meet with Trump at the White House on Tuesday to discuss the fall agenda, and Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said Monday that gun-control policy could come up for discussion.
“I don’t know that, but I’d be surprised if that wasn’t one of the issues we talk about,” Thune said.
McConnell told reporters in April that stopping the erosion of support from suburban voters would be central to keeping Republican control of the Senate in the 2020 election.
He noted that Republicans lost control of the House in 2018 because “we got crushed in the suburbs.”
“We lost college graduates and women in the suburbs, which led in the House to loses in suburban Kansas City; Oklahoma City; Houston; Dallas; Atlanta; Charleston, S.C.,” McConnell said in the April interview. “We’re determined not to lose women, certainly not by 19 points, and college graduates in our Senate races. And I don’t think we will.”
A Republican poll of 1,000 registered voters in key suburban districts conducted by Public Opinion Strategies on Aug. 7-8 found that suburban women voters rated working to prevent gun violence as their top priority.
Seventy-two percent of suburban women surveyed by the poll said gun laws should be more strict and 55 percent said they believe that stricter laws would help prevent gun violence.