As House Moves Forward on Gun Bills, Senate Seeks More Time to Find Bipartisan Agreement

As House Moves Forward on Gun Bills, Senate Seeks More Time to Find Bipartisan Agreement
The U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 31, 2022. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
Joseph Lord

Democrats in the House have put forward an array of wide-reaching gun control bills that are set to come to the floor this week, but in the Senate, which can make or break the success of most bills, Republican Party negotiators are requesting more time.

Various Democrat factions in both the House and Senate have pushed for sweeping federal legislation to change gun laws in the United States, in the wake of a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two adults dead.

House Democrats Float Various Gun Control Proposals

In the House, where simple majorities rule, Democrats have pushed for the wide-reaching “Protecting Our Kids” Act, which was pushed through the House Judiciary Committee in a party-line vote last week. It is expected to come to the floor for a vote later this week.

That bill, among other provisions, would ban the sale of “any semi-automatic centerfire rifle or semi-automatic centerfire shotgun that has, or has the capacity to accept, an ammunition feeding device with a capacity exceeding 5 rounds” to citizens below the age of 21. Currently one only needs to be 18 to buy such a weapon.

It would also codify the Department of Justice’s controversial ban on bump stocks, a weapon modification that increases the fire rate of a semi-automatic firearm.

In addition, the bill would make it a federal crime to possess weapons that critics have pejoratively labeled “ghost guns”—a term usually describing homemade or 3D-printed weapons without a serial number.

However, the real litmus test for any bill is in the Senate, where most legislation must overcome a 60-vote filibuster threshold to pass.

Foreseeing difficulty overcoming the filibuster threshold, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) put forward a bill that would bypass the filibuster entirely.

That bill, much narrower in scope than the Protecting Our Kids Act, would place a 1,000 percent tax on many types of semi-automatic firearms in the hope of making them unaffordable for most average Americans.

Specifically, the bill targets weapons like the AR-15, which can range in price from $400 to $2,000. If Beyer's bill were to become law, this range would increase to over $4,000 on the low end to $20,000 on the high end.

“Congress must act to prevent mass shootings,” Beyer said in a June 5 Twitter post. “I’m writing a bill to restrict the flow of weapons of war into American communities—including AR-15's and high capacity magazines—that could bypass the filibuster and pass with just 50 votes in the Senate.”

To do so, the bill uses the budget reconciliation process. This process allows bills specifically related to federal revenues and expenditures to pass through the Senate by a simple majority vote, with no need for the bill to overcome the filibuster threshold.

Democrats have already relied on the process on various occasions to overcome GOP resistance in the upper chamber.

At the beginning of 2021, the budget reconciliation process was used to advance the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to President Joe Biden’s desk. Later, Democrats used it for the Build Back Better Act, which ultimately failed after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) refused to vote for the package.

However, this process too is subject to some limitations.

Because of the potential for abuse of the system, as indeed happened through the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan and the Democrat-controlled House, the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) authored a rule requiring all items in a budget reconciliation bill to be directly related to federal revenues and expenditures.

The parliamentarian, who serves as the Senate’s nonpartisan referee, has wide-reaching authority to accept or reject items in budget reconciliation that go beyond the bounds of this rule.

This was a power that current parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough exercised on several occasions, during negotiations surrounding immigration provisions in the Build Back Better Act.

Though Beyer’s bill seems to be within the bounds of the reconciliation process, Republicans could try to convince MacDonough to rule against the bill if it comes to the Senate.

So far, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrat leaders have given no indication that the bill will be considered, however.

Senator Cornyn, Leading GOP Senate Negotiations, Asks for More Time

In the Senate as well, lawmakers have spent the past few weeks working to find a legislative response to the shooting.

Republicans, citing Second Amendment rights, have long pushed back against Democrats' efforts to tighten federal gun laws. Some Republicans seem to be open to softening this stance, though most have pushed for bills to increase school security or address widespread mental illness issues instead of stricter gun control.

Most prominently, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said during an interview with CNN that he had instructed Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to negotiate with some Democrats, including Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), to try to hammer out a compromise bill.

“I’ve encouraged him to talk to Senator Sinema, Senator Murphy, and others who are interested in trying to get an outcome that’s directly related to the problem,” McConnell said, adding that he is “hopeful that we could come up with a bipartisan solution that’s directly related to the facts of this awful massacre.”

McConnell was anxious to emphasize that he was not pushing for legislation that would advance a partisan Democrat agenda, but only to find a legislative solution directly related to the circumstances of the Uvalde shooting.

“What I’ve asked Senator Cornyn to do is to meet with the Democrats who are interested in getting a bipartisan solution and come up with a proposal, if possible, that’s crafted to meet this particular problem,” he said.

However, Cornyn has indicated that lawmakers need more time to work out any such agreement, despite a sense of anxiety on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's (D-N.Y.) part to bring legislation to the floor as soon as possible.

Cornyn told another news outlet that negotiators will need at least a week to hammer out any such deal, and he asked Schumer to push back the deadline for reaching an agreement.

"Good consensus legislation takes time. So I hope Sen. Schumer will let his members work," Cornyn said. "There’s no use in rushing a vote on a doomed partisan bill like the House is expected to vote on this week."

In a June 5 ad in the Dallas Morning News, 250 GOP donors praised McConnell's decision to tap Cornyn as the lead negotiator in the effort, saying Cornyn is "the right man to lead this bipartisan effort, as he has demonstrated throughout his career."

It remains unclear what will come of the Senate negotiations, however.

Even with McConnell's backing, any agreement reached between Cornyn and Democrats will need the support of at least 10 Republicans. And many, concerned about returning to their constituents with a gun control bill on their record, may be hesitant to back any such bill.

Further complicating the issue, progressive elements in the House may be hesitant to give their backing to a bill that does not go as far as they would like.