The Dallas Morning News
Political realities hold Biden back on guns and policing
WASHINGTON — As the nation struggles with yet another mass shooting and faces a reckoning over the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, President Joe Biden is calling for action. Going beyond that, however, is proving a lot more difficult.
Three months into his presidency, Biden’s robust agenda is running up against the realities of his narrow Democratic majority on Capitol Hill and the Senate’s limited ability to tackle multiple pieces of large-scale legislation at once. With the White House focusing first on a sweeping coronavirus relief package and now a sprawling infrastructure plan that is likely to dominate the congressional calendar for months, issues such as gun control and police reform appear likely to take a back seat.
Biden on Friday insisted that wasn’t the case, saying that on the issue of gun control in particular, “I’ve never not prioritized this.” He spoke a day after a gunman killed eight people at a Fedex facility in Indianapolis, the latest in a rash of mass shootings across the United States in recent weeks.
At issue for Biden are many of the central promises he made to Democratic voters — particularly Black voters who helped propel him to the White House — both about his priorities and his ability to maneuver in Washington, where issues such as gun control have languished for years. The mass shootings, as well as renewed focus on police killings of Americans of color following incidents in Chicago and a Minneapolis suburb, have increased demands for action
‘One at a time’
Deanna Hoskins, president and CEO of Just Leadershipusa, a police reform advocacy group, suggested activists are willing to be patient but not for long. She welcomed Biden’s recent executive orders on gun control, which took modest steps toward tightening background checks, but said “those actions don’t go far enough.”
“They don’t have the tentacles down in to really hit where rubber hits the road,” Hoskins said.
The White House says it can multitask, pushing publicly on its infrastructure plan while working behind the scenes to build support among moderate Democrats and Republicans on gun control and policing reform.
“In this building, the legislative team, senior members of the White House staff, we are working on multiple fronts at the same time,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
Officials say Biden’s less publicly prominent role in legislative discussions on guns and policing is by design, out of risk of further politicizing already complicated negotiations. They also assert that issuing executive orders on policing could undermine any momentum on the issue on Capitol Hill, and they’re buoyed by burgeoning discussions in Congress, such as talks between Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Still, Biden himself has described his legislative strategy as a “one at a time” approach. He said last month that successful presidents make progress because “they know how to time what they’re doing, order it, decide and prioritize what needs to be done.”
Biden has taken some executive actions on guns, targeting homemade “ghost guns” and the stabilizing braces for handguns that allow them to be fired from a shoulder, like a rifle. He has not proposed new legislation to revoke gun manufacturers’ liability protections or to toughen federal background checks, despite pledging to send such legislation to Congress on his first day in office. Instead he is supporting legislation proposed by House Democrats.
Legislation on guns and policing cannot be considered in Congress via the budget reconciliation process, the route that Democrats took to pass virus relief with just their party’s 50 votes in the Senate. That’s the same way they appear on track to tackle infrastructure. That means Democrats would need 10 Republicans to join them to pass the firearms or police legislation under current Senate procedures.
“I strongly, strongly urge my Republicans friends in the Congress who refuse to bring up the House-passed bill to bring it up now,” Biden said Friday, referring to the gun control measure. “Who in God’s name needs a weapon that can hold 100 rounds, or 40 rounds or 20 rounds. It’s just wrong, and I’m not going to give up until it’s done.”
Key lawmakers, including Sen. Chris Murphy, D-conn., have been trying to engineer a way around the stalemate by engaging colleagues in bipartisan talks. The House bill to extend background checks is now tangled in differences over provisions, including firearms transfers between family members. No breakthrough appears in sight.