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.”

Limited actions

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.

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