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Befuddled By Trump, Senate Will Not Vote On Gun Measures Next Week

President Trump speaks, watched by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, during a bipartisan meeting with members of Congress on school and community safety at the White House on Wednesday.
Mandel Ngan
AFP/Getty Images
President Trump speaks, watched by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, during a bipartisan meeting with members of Congress on school and community safety at the White House on Wednesday.

Updated at 3:05 a.m. ET Friday

Plans for a speedy Senate vote on gun legislation crumbled Thursday as Senate leaders announced plans to move on to long-planned banking legislation, while congressional Republicans struggle to make sense of President Trump's wishes on guns.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Thursday that the Senate will move on to the banking bill after voting on several nominations this week. McConnell said he hopes to vote on changes to the background check system for most gun purchases but did not provide a timeline or any further details.

"We'd love to do that at some point," McConnell said. "I'm hoping there is a way forward."

The lack of commitment is the surest sign yet that Congress does not plan to quickly address gun access, despite pressure from the White House and survivors of last month's deadly shooting at a Florida high school.

There is no plan for any action on gun legislation ahead of the two-week Easter recess at the end of March. The Senate will next take up Idaho GOP Sen. Mike Crapo's bipartisan legislation to ease bank regulations. The Senate also plans to vote this month on Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman's legislation to combat sex trafficking, and Congress must pass a sweeping spending package by March 23.

There is no room in the agenda for guns, unless senators reach agreement on legislation that could move through the Senate via an expedited process known as unanimous consent. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., who is opposed to any new restrictions on gun rights, said he did not believe that kind of consensus was within reach. "Look, we've got a lot of disagreement on the Republican side, and I would be surprised if something moved anytime soon," he said.

Widespread confusion

The sharp departure was the result of widespread confusion on Capitol Hill over guns. Republicans spent the day Thursday struggling to respond to a set of vague instructions Trump laid out during a televised meeting at the White House.

That meeting followed a familiar pattern for many lawmakers who are trying to write and pass legislation that can meet Trump's shifting approval. Even many Republicans responded to the White House meeting with confusion and frustration over the lack of clear guidance from the president.

Over the course of the hourlong broadcast Trump seemed to embrace plans to expand background checks and increase age limits for purchasing long gun rifles, positions generally anathema to congressional Republicans. He also suggested pre-emptively taking guns away from potentially dangerous people, a policy that might draw significant legal challenges.

"I don't know, you saw it, right? It was wild," said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, a Republican. "I think the president is going to have to narrow his list of what he'd like to see addressed and figure out what's realistic."

The disconnect between Trump and congressional Republicans on core philosophical issues on display this week, coupled with the lingering partisan anger between the two parties following the failed immigration talks, is quickly lowering already dim expectations that 2018 will result in much legislative output.

Adding to the confusion, however, Trump and Vice President Pence met Thursday with Chris Cox, the executive director of the National Rifle Association's lobbying arm. The president tweeted that it was a "Good (Great) meeting ..." and Cox said in a tweet after the meeting that "POTUS & VPOTUS support he Second Amendment, support strong due process and don't want gun control."

The only must-pass measure on the agenda is the spending bill still being drafted to finalize the appropriations process for the year that, once passed, will free up lawmakers to focus their efforts on what is quickly overtaking Capitol Hill: the battle for control of Congress in the midterm elections.

Republicans say they all agree that something needs to be done to curb gun violence, but there is little, if any, consensus on the best way to do that while still maintaining gun rights. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told reporters Thursday that he is not inclined to support any of the numerous gun-related bills that have been floated in recent days.

"I'm not inclined to do anything right now except to see what comes up," Shelby said. "We all are interested in our children being safe in schools; we're all interested in the communities being safe. It's how do we get there?"

Trump often acknowledges that it's hard to pass any legislation in Congress, let alone laws to curb gun rights. But many lawmakers, including some Republicans, say Trump's own statements make the already difficult task of passing gun legislation even harder.

The meeting concluded with Trump asking lawmakers to go back and talk about the extensive list of proposals floated at the meeting, and without a White House endorsement of any specific plan.

" Element of unpredictability"

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Ryan Costello told NPR's Morning Edition that he worries that kind of broad directive makes it harder for Congress to focus its attention on specific legislation that could pass and eventually become law.

"There's still an element of unpredictability on what the White House is willing to lean on from a gun safety reform measure," Costello said. "There was a bit of contradiction in what he said."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, one of the leading lawmakers working on a proposal to update the criminal background check system, shared similar concerns Wednesday after the meeting adjourned. Cornyn told reporters that it is his experience that passing these measures is harder than it sounds.

"I think everybody is trying to absorb what we just heard," Cornyn said. "He's a unique president and I think if he was focused on a specific piece of legislation rather than a grab bag of ideas then I think he could have a lot of influence, but right now we don't have that."

Shock at tariff announcement

Republicans still reeling from the fallout of Trump's conflicting comments during Wednesday's gun meeting were again taken by surprise Thursday with the White House announcement of impending tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum. The decision upends long-standing GOP orthodoxy on trade policy and provoked fears among senators of a trade war with China and other traditional allies that threatens to harm the U.S. economy more than tariffs promise to help.

"Every time you do this you get a retaliation, and agriculture is the No. 1 target," said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas. "I think this is terribly unproductive for the ag economy." China is already signaling it could retaliate against U.S. sorghum exports. Kansas is the country's top sorghum producer.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said the president's decision is counter to the view of the Senate GOP Conference, which has in prior meetings urged Trump not to impose these tariffs. "I think every Republican is pretty well on the same side of the page from that standpoint, resisting what [Trump] and his trade advisers were talking about," Johnson said. "We have been talking to the administration almost in a unanimous fashion, warning against protectionist measures, warning against these types of tariffs."

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Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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