Senators are expected to vote on four proposals, according to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). Two of them, backed by Democrats, would seek to prevent suspected terrorists from acquiring guns and explosives and impose mandatory background checks for firearms sold at gun shows and through online dealers.
Republicans are expected to offer two competing proposals, including one that would keep guns away from suspected terrorists if authorities can prove they have probable cause to do so within three business days of the attempted sale, said Cornyn, the author of that legislation.
Those measures have all failed to pass the Senate before, a point that frustrated many senators Thursday.
“Instead of trying to find a solution that would work and still protect people’s constitutional rights, we’re going to battle to a draw on Monday night,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said. The votes, he continued are “an intentional way to keep this as an issue; it’s not a way to solve this problem.”
Even if the Senate were to strike a deal, it’s unclear such a proposal would be able to get through the House. Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) was non-committal on the issue Thursday.
“We want to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again.” he told reporters. “Everybody wants that. But as we look at how to proceed, we also want to make sure that we’re not infringing upon people’s legitimate constitutional rights. That’s important.”
How to prevent terrorists from getting guns has become a subject of intense debate in Congress in the wake of the deadly attack in Orlando on Sunday in which 49 people were killed. The shooter, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, had been on the FBI’s terrorist watch list, but he was removed in 2014 because of a lack of evidence that he would commit an immediate crime.
Democrats have been angling for votes on a measure written by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would deny firearms and explosives to anyone the attorney general suspects of being a terrorist. They also want a vote on a proposal drafted by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would expand background checks by requiring them for guns purchased at gun shows and online.
Murphy staged a near-15-hour filibuster on the Senate floor over the past two days to secure a vote on those measures and credited his blockade with pressuring Republican leaders to commit to holding the votes.
“We still have to get from here to there, but we did not have that commitment when we started,” Murphy said early Thursday, though he noted that there was “no guarantee that those amendments pass.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) celebrated Murphy’s efforts, calling his display “inspiring” and saying all 46 Senate Democrats are united behind him.
“I hope he got the attention of the Senate Republicans,” Reid added.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) derided Murphy’s filibuster as “a campaign talkathon out here on the Senate floor which also prevented us from moving forward.”
GOP leaders say they have maintained since Tuesday there would be votes on amendments, though they had not specified which Republican- or Democrat-backed proposals would be considered.
“Of course no one wants terrorists to be able to buy a gun,” McConnell said. “If Democrats are actually serious about getting a solution on that issue, not just making a political talking point, they’ll join with us to support Senator Cornyn’s” bill.
But there are signs Republicans are growing uncomfortable with the Cornyn alternative.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is not up for reelection until 2020, on Wednesday criticized the measure — which she supported last year — saying it isn’t strong enough and “doesn’t do the job.”
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) said he thought “the Cornyn approach doesn’t give the AG the opportunity that an AG needs to make a case against someone who is actually a terrorist.”
Neither was ready to support Feinstein’s legislation. But both have been working on potential alternatives to the Cornyn and Feinstein bills.
Collins said Thursday that she was working with “a group of Republican senators” on a measure that would give the attorney general full authority to deny the right to buy a gun to anyone on the No Fly or Selectee lists – subsets of the FBI’s consolidated terrorist watchlist of 800,000 names.
It would also include a five-year look back provision ensuring that the FBI would be alerted whenever someone who used to be on one of those lists, like the Orlando shooter, purchased a gun.
Someone like Mateen “wouldn’t be denied the ability to buy a gun because he’s no longer on the list, but the FBI would be pinged that he had purchased a gun,” Collins explained, concluding that sequence of events “would undoubtedly put him back on the list.”
Toomey was also in talks Wednesday with a gun-control advocacy organization backed by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to craft a measure that Republicans could live with to prevent terrorists from obtaining firearms.
“This is not rocket science to figure this out,” Toomey said on the Senate floor Wednesday, adding that he had been speaking to “several” senators about a compromise.
But by the day’s end, leading Democrats were deriding the specifics of the Pennsylvania Republican’s proposal, and a spokeswoman for Bloomberg’s organization, Everytown for Gun Safety, said, “We’re not there yet.”
On Wednesday, Toomey proposed his own language, in which a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would annually vet a list from the attorney general of potential terrorists, who could be prevented from purchasing a firearm or explosive if the court agreed.
Meanwhile, other attempts at compromise fell short.
Feinstein approached Cornyn to try to reach a deal Wednesday, but those talks appeared to have frayed.
“I don’t think it’s going to work out,” Feinstein told reporters late Wednesday of her efforts to find a middle ground with Cornyn.
Both the Cornyn and Feinstein measures failed to pass the Senate in December following the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif. Republicans argue Feinstein’s legislation doesn’t do enough to protect the Second Amendment rights of individuals who might be labeled suspected terrorists by mistake.
Democrats say the time frame in Cornyn’s bill is too narrow and would make it functionally impossible to prevent anyone, even a terrorist, from getting a gun.
“It’s a way for them to say they’re doing something when they are doing nothing,” Schumer said.
The Justice Department on Thursday formally announced its support for the Feinstein amendment.
Previous efforts to pass gun-control legislation in the wake of recent mass shootings have been unsuccessful. The closest the Senate came to making headway in recent years was in 2013, when the Senate voted on a measure written by Toomey and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to require criminal and mental background checks at gun shows and for online gun sales following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
But only 54 senators, including four Republicans, supported that bill then — six votes shy of the 60 votes supporters needed.
Manchin called the substance of his and Toomey’s measure “the fundamental building block” of gun-control legislation on Wednesday.
“You can’t do a no-fly bill, you can’t do a terrorist watch list, and then leave a loophole,” Manchin told reporters. “That loophole must be closed.”
Murphy said early Thursday that the votes on the Democratic-backed amendments to keep guns from suspected terrorists and expand background checks were just the beginning of a bigger agenda.
“We want to start with these two common-sense measures,” Murphy said early Thursday, adding that Democrats had “carefully selected” the proposals “as the most likely to get bipartisan votes” because “they are as noncontroversial as you get.”
Looming over the debate is where presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump stands. On Wednesday morning, he tweeted that he would be meeting with the NRA to express his views that those on the terrorist list should not be allowed to purchase weapons.
Several Republican senators said on Thursday that they aren’t sure what Trump’s position is on the specific proposals being considered by the Senate and shrugged off whether they had to be on the same page as their party’s presumptive nominee.
“I can’t comment on where he’s going on that issue,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s top ally in the Senate. “He’s been a staunch supporter of the second amendment, and there is a huge divide between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. “
Gun-control advocates are braced for another policy defeat in the Senate, but they are also claiming a victory of sorts.
“After Sandy Hook it took four months for the U.S. Senate to vote. After Orlando it took four days,” said Everytown spokeswoman Erika Soto Lamb. “Make no mistake that this is another sign of the sea change in gun politics.”
Mike DeBonis and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.