House Democrats give up on passing "assault weapons" ban... at least for now

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

In an embarrassing defeat for the gun control lobby, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pulled the plug on the attempt to pass an “assault weapons” ban ahead of the August recess after failing to come up with the necessary votes, though POLITICO reports Democrats could try to revive the bill once lawmakers return after Labor Day.

According to the POLITICO report infighting between the Democrats’ progressive and “moderate” caucus led to the bill being pulled; not necessarily because of the gun ban itself, but because of progressives’ balking at a bill that would have increased funding for law enforcement.

Pelosi confirmed those plans to reporters Wednesday, acknowledging that the caucus has always planned to return when, or if, the Senate is able to complete work on a sweeping prescription drug and health care funding package: “The recognition that we have to come back … has made our plans a little bit different.”

The package of bills was intended to satisfy moderates — with measures to invest in local policing — as well as progressives, with the first vote to ban semi-automatic weapons since 1994. But other factions in the caucus, including the CBC, said they were skeptical of the timing of the policing legislation with only months remaining until the midterms. Progressives, too, demanded more safeguards placed on the grants to law enforcement organizations.

“We have a broad-based caucus that has multiple interests,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said as he left a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning. “The overwhelming majority want to make sure that people understand we want safe communities.”

Instead, the House will pivot its attention to a “big cat” public safety bill, a “Tiger King”-inspired bill from activist Carole Baskin, along with other noncontroversial legislation. Those will be the last votes for at least a week, as the House heads on its August recess and awaits Senate action on the drug pricing and health care bill.

Pelosi was hoping that “moderates” would support the gun ban bill while the progressive wing would bite their tongue and vote for the bill that would give more money to local law enforcement, but instead it sounds like the progressives weren’t willing to go along, which led to at least even more moderates balking at voting to ban the most commonly-sold rifles in the country. What remains unclear, for the moment anyway, is whether Democrats ever had the votes for their gun ban. I’m not convinced that’s the case even though Democrats are spinning the sidelining of the bill as an intra-party disagreement over policing.

Moderate Democrats have pushed for months for floor votes to show their commitment to supporting local police, after a scourge of GOP attack ads last cycle portrayed their party as anti-cop and soft on crime. Those attacks, according to Democrats’ own campaign arm, were “alarmingly potent” in key swing districts, and many battleground members believe it cost the party seats in the last election — which narrowed their House majority as they expected to expand it.

As the package of bills moved closer to the floor, however, progressives and Black Democrats raised alarm bells that the party shouldn’t be supporting more cash and support for policing programs without any kind of new accountability standards. The debate became highly nuanced: A bipartisan bill to increase the hiring and pay of police officers, particularly in local areas, became a bigger conversation about the role of policing.

“The debate is not about the function of policing. It’s about the definition of policing. And I think that that’s been the hard part,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a senior progressive.

I’m sure that there are a number of Democrats in purple districts who are breathing a sigh of relief that they don’t have to cast a vote on criminalizing the sale and purchase of most semi-automatic rifles as well as many models of shotguns and handguns, and I would be surprised if Nancy Pelosi really does decide to revisit the issue after Democrats return to D.C. after their August recess. It’s possible, of course, but if that’s going to happen she’s gonna have to convince the sizable number of progressives in the House to vote to increase funding for police and persuade the much smaller number of moderates to cast a high profile vote in favor of a sweeping gun ban just weeks before Americans start casting their votes in the midterms. If Pelosi couldn’t get that done in late July, I don’t see how it’s going to be any easier even closer to Election Day.