House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said yesterday he wants Congress to approve some form of gun control legislation this year and sees room for a potential compromise that would be acceptable to many Republicans, despite recent setbacks on the House floor.
In an interview, Hastert said that he and many House members favor a requirement for child-safety locks on guns and a ban on the importation of high-capacity ammunition clips. He also said there is an obvious compromise between lawmakers who want to require all gun show dealers to take up to 72 hours to conduct criminal background checks on prospective buyers and those who would limit the checks to 24 hours.
Hastert's comments were the strongest indication to date that the issue remains alive this year, and he warned that Republicans would pay a political price unless they break the current stalemate in Congress.
"We're going to have common-sense gun legislation sooner or later," Hastert said. "If we don't get it passed, our friends on the other side of the aisle are going to shoot it at us a bullet at a time."
Gun control legislation died in the House last month after Democrats refused to go along with what they contended was a watered-down version engineered by GOP leaders and Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), an ardent foe of gun control. The Senate has already approved a gun control package, including the 72-hour requirement, as part of a juvenile justice and crime prevention bill.
Because the House has approved separate juvenile justice legislation, the two chambers are entitled to go to conference and negotiate out a final agreement that could include gun control provisions. But until now, neither chamber's leadership has made a move to get the talks going, and Democrats are highly skeptical that any legislation will emerge this year.
Hastert's comments yesterday came during a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post, in which he commented on his first six months as speaker, prospects for a comprehensive deal over Social Security, Medicare and tax cuts, and his relationship with Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the powerful majority whip who many believe is the real power in the House.
"I know what the truth is," said Hastert, who was chief deputy whip under DeLay before he was elevated to speaker in January to succeed Newt Gingrich. "The truth is we work on a lot of issues. . . . I listen to our membership and the leadership and I finally make the decision -- if I think it's the right thing to do."
Hastert also made these other points:
A summit involving congressional leaders and the White House "may happen" this fall. But Republicans are determined to pass all 13 spending bills this summer to leave the president with less leverage going into those talks. In the past, when Republicans waited until the last minute to pass major spending bills, the president was able to exploit their fears of another government shutdown to extract major concessions.
Despite growing complaints from appropriators that there isn't enough money available to properly fund key labor, health, education and veterans spending bills, the House leadership is determined to stick with tight spending caps that were mandated by the 1997 budget deal.
The GOP is unlikely to seek a 10-year tax cut of as much as $1 trillion in light of much improved surplus forecasts, as some lawmakers suggested earlier this week. Instead, the House GOP tax-cut package probably will end up "slightly more" than the $775 billion plan originally endorsed by the House and Senate this year.
Both the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office issued revised forecasts this week showing a massive windfall of as much as $1 trillion more in surpluses over the coming decade, even outside of the Social Security program. Many Republicans, including Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.), seized on that news as justification for boosting the Republicans' tax-cut package.
However, a new study warns that much of that $1 trillion is a "mirage" premised on what it called the unlikely scenario that Congress will continue to adhere to tight spending caps. The study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank, concludes that three-fourths or more of the surplus would vanish if government analysts used more realistic assumptions about expected government spending.
But Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) both argued this week that most Americans would not approve of Congress backsliding on its commitment to fiscal discipline.
On the gun issue, Hastert strongly criticized House Democrats for voting overwhelmingly to kill the gun control measure last month, charging that they were more concerned about developing a political issue against the Republicans than passing major improvements in the gun law.
He vowed that the House and Senate would appoint conferees after the July 4th recess and said there were some obvious ways to resolve differences over the gun show provision, including splitting the difference between a 24-hour and 72-hour waiting period.
"I'd guess the solution will come someplace between what failed in the House and passed in the Senate," he said. "There's a 48-hour difference. If you're an honest legislator, now you can get that bill into conference and come out with a common-sense solution."
But Democrats and other Republicans say the process will be far more difficult and contentious than the speaker has suggested. Many House Democrats, for example, are insisting that nothing less than a 72-hour requirement is enough to ensure an adequate background check. And many Senate Republicans, including Lott, are opposed to any gun control measures.
CAPTION: Speaker J. Dennis Hastert on gun control: "If we don't get it passed, our friends on the other side of the aisle are going to shoot it at us a bullet at a time."