McConnell: Gun control ‘in a holding pattern’

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined at left by Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., speaks to reporters during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Six weeks after a pair of mass shootings killed more than 30 people, Congress remains “in a holding pattern” on gun control as lawmakers await proposals from the White House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

While President Donald Trump has said he would veto a House-passed bill to expand background checks for gun purchases, McConnell said Tuesday he is hopeful there are other gun-related proposals that Congress can approve and Trump can support.

“I still await guidance from the White House as to what (Trump) thinks he’s comfortable signing,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters. “If and when that happens, then we’ll have a real possibility of actually changing the law and hopefully making some progress.”

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said McConnell and Trump were blocking meaningful action on gun violence, adding, “This is the moment for the president to do something different and courageous.”

The New York Democrat said he wonders whether Trump will “rise to the occasion, or will he squander this opportunity as he always has done in the past?”

Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned Trump on Sunday that any proposal on gun control must include the House-passed bill to expand background checks. Pelosi and Schumer spoke with Trump by phone and said they made it clear any proposal that does not include the House legislation “will not get the job done” because dangerous loopholes will be left open.

Schumer said Tuesday he was “not encouraged by what the president said” but remained committed to pushing for stricter gun control measures. Senate Democrats planned to speak for hours on the Senate floor to urge passage of background checks and other measures in the wake of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio last month that left dozens of people dead.

Trump and White House aides have discussed a number of gun control measures with members of Congress, including steps to go after fraudulent buyers, notify state and local law enforcement when a potential buyer fails a background check, issue state-level emergency risk protection orders, boost mental health assistance and speed up executions for those found guilty of committing mass shootings.

Trump hopes to reveal something on gun control to the American public “very soon,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Tuesday. The White House expects the gun proposal later this week or early next week, according to a person familiar with the administration’s thinking.

Attorney General William Barr and White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland met with GOP senators Tuesday to talk about a path forward. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said background checks remained under discussion, but it was not clear whether progress was being made.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said background checks did not come up during a lunch meeting Tuesday between Senate Republicans and Vice President Mike Pence.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., cautioned against overinterpreting the relative silence by the White House. “My guess is they’re still vetting ideas, proposals and kind of putting together their plan,” he said.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who has helped lead a bipartisan push to expand background checks, said he had not spoken to Trump since late last week. Manchin said he considers a proposal he is offering with Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey a starting point for legislative action.

“You can’t water it down because that’s the bedrock,” Manchin said, adding that senators and the White House haven’t agreed on anything yet. “We’re just going to see where it goes,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro, Zeke Miller and Alan Fram contributed to this report.

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McConnell waiting on Trump to decide on any actions to control guns

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Congressional Republicans are waiting for the White House to chart a path forward on gun violence legislation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday, effectively putting the burden on President Donald Trump to decide the GOP’s legislative response to the spate of mass shootings that included another deadly attack in Texas over the weekend.

Asked about prospects for a Senate vote on legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled House to expand background checks for gun purchases, McConnell said, “The administration is in the process of studying what they’re prepared to support, if anything.”

The Kentucky Republican said he expects an answer from the White House next week, adding that he wants to make sure that senators “would actually be making a law and not just having serial votes” on proposals to stem gun violence.

McConnell’s comments point to the challenge ahead as Congress returns to a gun debate that emerged during their summer recess, when mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, left 31 people dead. While Trump has said he wants to work with Congress to “stop the menace of mass attacks,” he’s waffled on support for expanding background checks, making the next steps uncertain. Trump and other Republicans have talked of pursuing other measures to address mental health or codify “red flag” laws that allow guns to be taken from people who pose harm to themselves or others, but even those measures face skepticism among GOP lawmakers.

The dynamic appears unchanged even after a shooting rampage in West Texas over the weekend that killed at least seven people. The Texas gunman obtained his AR-style rifle through a private sale, allowing him to evade a federal background check that previously blocked him from getting a gun, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press. The official spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation.

A bill passed by the House in February would require background checks on all gun sales, including those between strangers who meet online or at gun shows. The Senate has not taken up legislation, and McConnell appeared to set a high bar for Senate action when lawmakers return next week after a five-week recess. If Trump favors background checks or other legislation he has discussed publicly in recent weeks, and senators “know that if we pass it it’ll become law,” then he’ll put it on the Senate floor for a vote, McConnell told radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Trump in a tweet Tuesday urged Congress to “get back to work,” but omitted any reference to guns, focusing instead on prescription drug prices, healthcare and infrastructure.

Trump said Sunday that any gun measure must satisfy the competing goals of protecting public safety and the constitutional right to gun ownership.

“For the most part, sadly, if you look at the last four or five (shootings) going back even five or six or seven years … as strong as you make your background checks, they would not have stopped any of it,” Trump said. “So it’s a big problem. It’s a mental problem. It’s a big problem.”

Trump’s comments were reminiscent of his wavering last year, when he vowed to support background checks in the wake of a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, only to relent after receiving pressure from the National Rifle Association.

This time there seems to be more sustained momentum to produce some sort of measure after Trump asked aides to pull together a comprehensive list of ideas. White House officials have been meeting with lawmakers and congressional staff as they try to formulate a plan that Trump can support without risking backlash from his political base.

“We’re looking at a lot of different bills, ideas, concepts. It’s been going on for a long while,” Trump told reporters Sunday after returning to the White House from Camp David.

NRA head Wayne LaPierre has repeatedly spoken to Trump and warned him about losing support from NRA members. But White House aides contend the president’s base would stick with him regardless. They point to strong support for background checks among Republicans and gun owners and believe they can fashion a proposal that the gun lobby — while not supporting — may not vehemently oppose.

Among the proposals being considered: red flag laws, more money for mental health and making sure juvenile information gets into existing background checks. Additionally, White House aides have said Attorney General William Barr is drafting legislation to speed up the death penalty for mass shooters.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a leading gun control supporter, said Trump has told him personally that he remains committed to working on expanding background checks.

Even so, the Connecticut Democrat rates the chance of Congress actually approving anything at “less than 50-50,” especially if Trump appears willing “to give the NRA veto power” over legislation such as a bipartisan bill to expand background checks being pushed Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

“I am skeptical that these efforts are going to bear fruit. I think it’s very hard to negotiate with this White House when the president’s public positions seem to change by the day,” Murphy said last month. “I’m going to try … because the stakes are so high.”

As senators continue conversations, House Democrats are moving ahead on other bills, with the House Judiciary Committee set to consider a host of proposals to address gun violence at a hearing next week. The panel postponed a hearing originally scheduled Wednesday because of Hurricane Dorian.

The committee will consider bills to ban high-capacity magazines, establish a federal program for “red flag” laws and expand bans on firearm ownership to people convicted of certain hate crimes. The panel will also hold a hearing later this month on a bill to ban military-style assault weapons.

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Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo in Washington, Jonathan Lemire in New York and Jill Colvin in Dublin, Ireland, contributed to this story.

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House holds Barr, Rose in contempt

Attorney General William Barr speaks about the census as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross listens during an event with President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Democratic-controlled House voted Wednesday to hold two top Trump administration officials in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with subpoenas related to a decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The House voted, 230-198, to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt. The vote, a political blow to the Trump administration, is largely symbolic because the Justice Department is unlikely to prosecute the two men.

The action marks an escalation of Democratic efforts to use their House majority to aggressively investigate the inner workings of the Trump administration.

Four Democrats opposed the contempt measure: Reps. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, Anthony Brindisi of New York, Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Jared Golden of Maine. All but Lamb are in their first term and all represent swing districts. Independent Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a former Republican, supported the contempt measure.

President Donald Trump abandoned the citizenship question last week after the Supreme Court said the administration’s justification for the question ”seems to have been contrived .” Trump directed agencies to try to compile the information using existing databases.

The White House called the vote “ridiculous” and “yet another lawless attempt to harass the president and his administration.”

The Justice and Commerce departments have produced more than 31,000 pages of documents to the House regarding the census issue, and senior officials from both agencies, including Ross, have spoken on the record about the matter, the White House said, adding that Democrats continue to demand documents that the White House contends are subject to executive privilege.

“House Democrats know they have no legal right to these documents, but their shameful and cynical politics know no bounds,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.

Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said the contempt vote was an important step to assert Congress’ constitutional authority to serve as a check on executive power.

“Holding any secretary in criminal contempt of Congress is a serious and sober matter — one that I have done everything in my power to avoid,” Cummings said during House debate. “But in the case of the attorney general and Secretary Ross, they blatantly obstructed our ability to do congressional oversight into the real reason Secretary Ross was trying for the first time in 70 years to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.”

While Ross and other officials have claimed the sole reason they wanted to add the citizenship question was to enforce the Voting Rights Act, “we now know that claim was nothing but a pretext,” Cummings said. “The Supreme Court said that.”

At the direction of Barr and Ross, “the departments of Justice and Commerce have been engaged in a campaign to subvert our laws and the process Congress put in place to maintain the integrity of the census,” Cummings said.

The contempt resolution “is about protecting our democracy, protecting the integrity of this body. It’s bigger than the census,” he said

Ross called the vote a public relations “stunt” that further demonstrates Democrats’ “unending quest to generate headlines instead of operating in good faith with our department.”

Democrats prefer to “play political games rather than help lead the country” and “have made every attempt to ascribe evil motivations to everyday functions of government,” Ross said.

Ross told the oversight committee that the March 2018 decision to add the question was based on a Justice Department request to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Democrats disputed that, citing documents unearthed last month suggesting that a push to draw legislative districts in overtly partisan and racist ways was the real reason the administration wanted to include the question.

Democrats feared that adding the question would reduce participation in immigrant-heavy communities and result in a severe undercount of minority voters. They have pressed for specific documents to determine Ross’ motivation and contend the administration has declined to provide the material despite repeated requests.

“The real issue we should be debating” is why Democrats are afraid to ask how many citizens live in the United States, said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky. Contrary to Democrats’ claims, Ross and other officials have cooperated with the oversight panel and provided thousands of documents, Comer said.

“If the Democrats can’t impeach President Trump, they will instead hold his Cabinet in contempt of Congress,” he said. “This is just another episode in political theater.”

In a letter late Wednesday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Barr and Ross asked Democrats to postpone the vote, saying they have shown a “clear record of cooperation” with Congress. The contempt vote “is both unnecessarily undermining” relations between the two branches and “degrading” Congress’ “own institutional integrity,” they wrote.

Trump has pledged to “fight all the subpoenas” issued by Congress and says he won’t work on legislative priorities, such as infrastructure, until Congress halts investigations of his administration.

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House panel moves to hold Barr, others in contempt

U.S. Attorney General William Barr (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

House Democrats are moving to hold Trump administration officials in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with subpoenas for documents related to the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said the panel will vote soon on contempt measures for Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross unless specific documents are received by Thursday.

A contempt vote by the committee would be an escalation of Democratic efforts to use their majority to aggressively investigate the inner workings of President Donald Trump’s administration.

The House Judiciary Committee voted last month to hold Barr in contempt of Congress as part of a separate legal battle with the Trump administration over access to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

A vote by the full House would be required to hold Barr and Ross in contempt on the census issue. Such a finding would be a political blow but would not result in real punishment since the men are unlikely to go to jail or be arrested.

Cummings said in a statement that the failure of Barr and Ross to respond to the Oversight subpoenas was “part of a pattern” by the administration to engage in a “cover-up” and challenge the authority of Congress to conduct constitutionally required oversight.

“This cover-up is being directed from the top,” Cummings said, noting that Trump has vowed to fight all subpoenas issued by Congress and refused to work on legislative priorities, such as infrastructure, until Congress halts investigations of his administration.

While Trump has suggested that congressional subpoenas are partisan and somehow related to the Russia probe, neither claim is true, Cummings said. “The subpoenas in this investigation were adopted on a bipartisan basis, and this investigation has nothing to do with Russia,” he said.

A spokesman for Ross said the Commerce Department has worked in good faith with the committee and delivered nearly 14,000 pages of documents. Ross testified for nearly seven hours earlier this year.

“To any objective observer, it is abundantly clear that the committee’s intent is not to find facts, but to desperately and improperly influence the Supreme Court with mere insinuations and conspiracy theories,” the spokesman said in an emailed statement.

The Supreme Court is considering the citizenship question in a ruling expected later this year.

The committee approved the subpoenas on the census issue in April. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan was the sole Republican to join with Democrats in the 23-14 vote. Amash later said he supports an impeachment inquiry against Trump.

Democrats say they want specific documents to determine why Ross added the citizenship question to the 2020 census. They say the Trump administration has declined to provide the documents despite repeated requests.

Ross told the committee the decision in March 2018 to add the question was based on a Justice Department request to help it enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Cummings disputed that, citing documents unearthed last week suggesting that the real reason the administration sought to add the citizenship question was to help officials gerrymander legislative districts in overtly partisan and racist ways.

Computer files from North Carolina redistricting expert Tom Hofeller include detailed calculations that lay out gains Republicans would see in Texas by basing legislative districts on the number of voting-age citizens rather than the total population.

Hofeller, a Republican operative who died last year, said in the documents that GOP gains would be possible only if the census asked every household about its members’ immigration status for the first time since 1950.

Democrats say Ross considered adding the citizenship question from his first days in the administration in 2017. They fear the question will reduce census participation in immigrant-heavy communities, harming representation and access to federal dollars.

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House approves ethics, election reform

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Democrats rally ahead of passage of H.R. 1, “The For the People Act,” at the Capitol in Washington, Friday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Democratic-controlled House has approved legislation aimed at reducing the role of big money in politics, ensuring fair elections and strengthening ethics standards. But it stands little chance in the Republican-run Senate.

The House measure would make it easier to register and vote, and would tighten election security and require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.

Election Day would become a holiday for federal workers, and a public financing system for congressional campaigns would be set up. The legislation approved 234-193 would bar voter roll purges such as those seen in Georgia, Ohio and elsewhere, and restore voting rights for ex-prisoners.

Republicans call it a Democratic power grab that amounts to a federal takeover of elections.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says it’s dead on arrival in that chamber.

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Trump reverses course on intel chiefs

President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A day after he lashed out at U.S. intelligence agency chiefs over their assessments of global threats, President Donald Trump abruptly reversed course and said that he and the intelligence community “are all on the same page.”

Trump met with his director of national intelligence and other top security officials in the Oval Office Thursday and said afterward that they told him their testimony at a Senate hearing had been “mischaracterized” by the news media.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats had slammed the president for his comments disparaging Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Gina Haspel and other top security officials.

The officials told Congress on Tuesday that North Korea is unlikely to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and that the Iran nuclear deal is working, contrary to what Trump has claimed.

The intelligence agency chiefs “said that they were totally misquoted and … it was taken out of context,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “They said it was fake news.”

Coats and other officials presented an update to the Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday on their annual assessment of global threats. In a public report and testimony broadcast on C-SPAN, they warned of an increasingly diverse range of security dangers around the globe, from North Korean nuclear weapons to Chinese cyberespionage to Russian campaigns to undermine Western democracies.

Trump tweeted Thursday that he and the intelligence leaders “are very much in agreement on Iran, ISIS, North Korea, etc.” and that he values their service.

“Happily, we had a very good meeting, and we are all on the same page!” he wrote.

Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters that the intelligence officials were “courageous” in speaking “truth to power” by publicly contradicting Trump.

“One dismaying factor of it all is that the president just doesn’t seem to have the attention span or the desire to hear what the intelligence community has been telling him,” Pelosi said Thursday, calling Trump’s comments attacking the intelligence leaders “cause for concern.”

Trump said earlier that intelligence officials were wrong about North Korea, Iran and the Islamic State, which they said remains a terrorist and insurgent threat.

“Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” Trump tweeted Wednesday.

Pelosi said Trump’s comments were “stunning.”

“It’s important for the Republicans in Congress to recognize they have to weigh in with the president to say, ‘You can’t act without knowledge,’” Pelosi said.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said it was “past time” for U.S. intelligence officials to stage an intervention with Trump.

In a letter to Coats, Schumer called Trump’s criticism of intelligence agencies “extraordinarily inappropriate” and said it could undermine public confidence in the government’s ability to protect Americans.

Schumer urged Coats and other officials to “educate” Trump about the facts and raw intelligence underlying threat assessments so the administration can speak “with a unified and accurate voice about national security threats.”

Asked about his tweets earlier Thursday, Trump did not back away from questioning the assessment by Coats and Haspel.

“I disagree with certain things that they said. I think I’m right, but time will prove that, time will prove me right probably,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I think Iran is a threat. I think I did a great thing when I terminated the ridiculous Iran nuclear deal. It was a horrible one-sided deal.”

Speaking about intelligence agencies generally, Trump added: “I have great respect for a lot people but I don’t always agree with everybody.”

At a hearing Tuesday, Coats said intelligence information does not support the idea that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will eliminate his nuclear weapons.

Trump later insisted on Twitter that the U.S. relationship with North Korea “is the best it has ever been.” He pointed to the North’s halt in nuclear and missile tests, the return of some U.S. service members’ remains and the release of detained Americans as signs of progress.

U.S. intelligence agencies also said Iran continues to work with other parties to the nuclear deal it reached with the U.S. and other world powers. In doing so, they said, Iran has at least temporarily lessened the nuclear threat. In May 2018, Trump withdrew the U.S. from that accord, which he said would not deter Iran.

“The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran,” Trump tweeted. “They are wrong!”

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Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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White House, not Trump, condemns Rep. Steve King

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, listens during a hearing on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Comments by Republican Rep. Steve King about white supremacy are “abhorrent,” the White House said Wednesday as bipartisan condemnation of King continued.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders praised a move by House Republicans to strip the nine-term Iowa lawmaker of his committee assignments.

King told The New York Times last week that, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”

The comments were widely denounced as racist.

The House on Tuesday approved a Democratic measure rebuking King, and a member of the House Republican leadership suggested King should leave Congress.

When President Donald Trump was asked on Monday about King’s remarks, he said: “I haven’t been following it.” But Sanders said Wednesday that King’s comments were “abhorrent,” and said GOP leaders took action when one of their members said “outrageous and inappropriate things.”

House Democratic leaders, meanwhile, blocked an effort to censure King, referring a proposal by Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush to the House Ethics Committee for further review.

Censure is the most serious sanction for a House member short of expulsion, and it has been imposed only six times in the past 100 years.

Rush, the sole House member to oppose the earlier measure rebuking King, pressed for a vote Wednesday to censure King, saying the House should take a stronger stand against what he called “Steve King’s violent, vitriolic and rabid racism.”

After the House clerk read Rush’s resolution detailing a string of inflammatory comments by King over the years, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland moved to refer the matter to the Ethics Committee. Lawmakers approved the motion on a voice vote, postponing action on the censure measure indefinitely.

“I think we have spoken, and we have spoken on both sides of the aisle, that this is unacceptable rhetoric and behavior,” Hoyer said.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., who sponsored the disapproval motion, said censure should be reserved for statements made on the House floor. He and other Democratic leaders also said censuring King could open Democrats to Republican attacks.

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