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Republicans face crunch time on guns as Trump wavers

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (center) flanked by Sen. John Barrasso (left) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. | Tom Brenner/Getty Images

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‘We are very interested in knowing what his plan and proposal is and what he’d be willing to sign,’ says Senate Majority Whip John Thune.

The summerlong debate over new gun safety legislation is coming to a head.

Senate Republican leaders discussed gun legislation in an hourlong party meeting on Monday evening, including expanding background checks, according to an attendee. But no one is making a move without President Donald Trump, who senators expect will be presented options on gun legislation by White House officials later this week.

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Trump himself has been nearly impossible to pin down on the issue. Top GOP leaders in the House and Senate — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Whip John Thune, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise — will meet with Trump on Tuesday to discuss the fall agenda, according to three sources familiar with the meeting. That gives Republicans the opportunity to hear the latest from the president himself.

Trump has sounded at times optimistic or noncommittal about new gun legislation. With memories of last year’s government shutdown fresh in their minds after Trump rejected their spending bill, Senate Republicans have no interest in getting ahead of Trump on such a charged cultural issue.

“We are very interested in knowing what his plan and proposal is and what he’d be willing to sign,” Thune said, after the party leadership met on Monday. “All of our members, if this meeting [Monday] was any indication, believe that the president needs to indicate what it is he will be for.”

McConnell made clear on Monday afternoon that the Senate’s focus this month will be on spending bills to avoid a shutdown on Sept. 30 and fund the government into next fall, a potential setback to moving quickly on gun legislation in the wake of several recent mass shootings. McConnell did not mention gun legislation, though he has said in previous media appearances the Senate will consider whatever the president will sign.

Some Republicans said they and the president cannot avoid the debate, even if a positive result can’t be promised.

Trump’s “sincere enough about it. I don’t know if he knows what direction to go exactly. … It’s somewhere where his Manhattan upbringing may clash a little bit with traditional Republicanism,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who is a close Trump ally.

“There will be plenty of people reminding the public that he made a promise to deal with it, and I think it would be foolish to not at least bring it up,” he continued, adding: “That’s not to say anything will pass.”

Trump made a brief reference to guns Monday afternoon, saying several options were under discussion. The opaque positioning by the president only added to the overall confusion and Republicans declining to take hard positions on potential legislation.

“I’m not going to say I won’t support anything. I want to support a solution,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).

As Republicans await Trump, Democratic negotiators offer divergent takes on whether expanded background checks, red flag laws or crackdowns on straw purchases can make it through a GOP Senate that’s rejected or ignored such legislation in the past.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has been negotiating with the White House on gun reform, was pessimistic Monday afternoon after a phone conversation with White House officials.

“I’m less optimistic than I was a couple weeks ago,” Murphy said. “I haven’t walked away from the table, the White House hasn’t. … We put some creative ideas on the table, they put some creative ideas on the table, but we’re not there.”

But Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who crafted the bipartisan expanded background check legislation with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) in 2013, struck a more hopeful tone after meeting with Trump last week. He said the White House was aiming for some type of proposal this week.

“I’m still encouraged,” Manchin said. “They would not ask me to stay for an extra half-hour and the president sat through the whole meeting if he wasn’t serious.”

GOP senators and the Trump administration are both anticipating some clarity later this week from the president. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said White House officials “are pitching [Trump] sometime in the next few days … and then we’ll see what he wants to do.”

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Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat whose city suffered a mass shooting in August, met with White House officials, including counselor Kellyanne Conway, on Monday. That alone gave her confidence the president is still serious about doing something.

“I’ve been the mayor since 2014. The president has been in since 2017, and I’ve never been invited to the White House,” Whaley said. “There’s something new in this that I was invited to the White House to discuss commonsense gun legislation.”

Democratic leadership continued to pressure the White House on Monday to bring up the House-passed universal background checks bill, which is broader than the Manchin-Toomey bill that would expand background checks to private sellers.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggested that anything short of universal background checks would fall short, though that bill lacks GOP support.

“I mean, he tells people right after the incident: ‘I’m going to get the strongest bill ever,’” Schumer said. “And then he fades back from that. But the pressure is not going away.”

As Republicans wait for a signal from Trump, the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday will take up a package of additional gun legislation, including a long-sought ban of high-capacity magazines. The hope is to keep the spotlight on an issue Democrats fear could fade from public discussion.

The panel will also vote on a bill to set up a federal program for “red flag” laws that allow temporary gun seizures — a bill with broad Democratic support but just one Republican co-sponsor.

Many Democrats are also pushing for a vote on an assault weapons ban — one of the most contentious types of gun restrictions — on the floor, though it has run into resistance from some of the caucus’ more conservative members.

Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.

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