Under pressure from all sides, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) yesterday abandoned his efforts to forge a common GOP position on gun legislation and said he would leave it up to the House to "work its will" on the politically volatile subject when it comes up for a vote next week.
While Hastert has been trying hard this week to reassert his leadership over the fractious GOP caucus, he said yesterday that the party was so divided on the wisdom of further gun controls that his leadership team would not take an official position and "whip" members into line.
"Everybody has their points of view on this and I think they will be able to work their will in the House," said Hastert, who personally favors background checks at gun shows and other proposals to keep weapons from children. "I think even within our conference there are two or three different points of view, and legitimately so."
Hastert's announcement amounted to a reversion to a more laissez faire leadership style that came under criticism when the House reached impasses over spending policy and the Kosovo conflict. Only three days ago, Hastert adopted a more assertive posture, warning GOP colleagues that they needed to rally together behind a common agenda or risk losing control of the House next year.
But with even the top leadership badly split on what to do in the wake of the Littleton school shootings, Hastert was forced to back off his efforts to forge a common GOP position on guns, adding to the uncertainty about what will actually pass next week when the House takes up a smorgasbord of proposals on juvenile justice, guns and depictions of violence in the media.
Rather than impose a unified party position, House Republican leaders decided in a closed-door meeting yesterday to assuage the concerns of lawmakers across the ideological spectrum by calling for up-and-down votes on a series of individual gun-related amendments.
Among the amendments will be a package of controls approved in the Senate, including mandatory background checks at gun shows, required safety locks on new handguns and a ban on the importation of high capacity ammunition clips. Most Democrats are supporting this plan.
The House will also consider proposals drawn up by Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.). The package embraces some of the concepts of the Senate legislation, but with some important differences.
The Hyde bill, for instance, would narrow the number of gun shows where background checks must be conducted. It also would hold parents liable in certain cases if they give children access to guns that are later used in crimes.
Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), a moderate who has joined Democrats in pushing the Senate-passed gun show rules, said Hastert "is trying to be the mediator and letting everybody vote their conscience and conviction."
"Maybe if you and I were in the same position within a party as polarized as this one on this issue, you and I would do the same thing," she added.
Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), who is working with Roukema and others, said lawmakers are "within striking distance" of passing the Senate provisions. He said the leadership's decision not to whip the vote could help because "inside the House Republican leadership the anti-gun control forces are stronger than the gun control forces."
But Democratic gun control advocates argued that if the drive to impose new restrictions falls short next week, Hastert must shoulder the blame. "Failure to pass this bill will be laid at the speaker's doorstep," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.).
The question of gun control divides the Democrats as well as the Republicans, but to a much lesser extent. While House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said he would "encourage Democrats to vote for what I think are reasonable approaches to this problem," the Democratic leadership was not formally whipping its members either. House Minority Whip David E. Bonior hails from Michigan, a state with a large number of pro-gun voters, and roughly 30 House Democrats oppose new gun restrictions.
"That's their prerogative," Gephardt said. "I respect their rights."
Bonior supports the Democratic alternative and is aiding the three women who are leading the charge for the Senate package -- Reps. Lowey, Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) -- but he has failed to mobilize his entire whip operation.
House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.) said that with such a slew of competing political interests, Hastert was sensible to stay above the fray.
"The speaker feels like the gun issue is not a Republican issue, necessarily," Watts said. "There's a lot of different dynamics to this thing."
Hyde said he did not think the leadership could influence a gun vote even if it tried. "It's very difficult to have people march in lockstep on this," he said.
Hyde added he was concerned gun legislation would not be able to pass with such a divided chamber. "This is a tough issue," he said. "Nothing is certain."
The House Rules Committee will begin taking testimony Monday afternoon on what is expected to be a lengthy list of amendments, and the measures should reach the House floor by Wednesday. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) predicted the final bill would be "a patchwork quilt of ideological axes being ground."
CAPTION: Speaker J. Dennis Hastert will leave it up to the House to "work its will."