The Senate is essentially outsourcing its legislative duties to a divided White House and the whims of President Donald Trump, as it makes its first sustained attempt at overhauling gun laws in years.
It’s a clear reaction from senators being burned so often and so badly by Trump. After having tried to guess where the president might land on a given policy dispute only to see him derail their plans, this time, they’re taking no chances of reliving the trauma.
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“First time ever in history when the president sets the agenda every day when he tweets at 4 in the morning,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who is retiring at the end of the year and saw his work on an immigration bill fall apart last year after Trump came out against it. “Pelosi will drive some trains, Mitch will drive others. And the president is going to drive ones he wants to drive.”
The dynamic is a reflection not just of Trump’s mercurial nature but of how sensitive the issue of gun control is. Republican senators are loath to get crosswise with conservative activists if they don’t have cover from the president on proposals many have previously rejected. Even some Democrats acknowledge that if they really want to see something passed, Trump is going to have to make the first move.
But the new reality also underscores how cautious the Republican-controlled Senate is under Trump, particularly as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looks to defend his majority and a presidential election approaches. It also reflects the slim odds that any major gun proposals ultimately will be enacted.
“This president cannot be counted on when it comes to something this controversial, to do the right thing,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin.
At the outset of his presidency, Trump largely allowed congressional Republicans to work out their own plans. The GOP tried and failed to replace Obamacare, then followed up with a successful push to cut taxes.
But more recent examples show there’s little use in moving ahead without an explicit OK from Trump himself. In 2018, a bipartisan group labored to reach an immigration deal; later that year, essentially the entire Senate signed off on a stopgap plan to fund the government.
Both times, senior Trump administration officials were looped in, but the president himself didn’t explicitly sign off and senators proceeded with some doubt about where Trump stood. Each time, Trump kicked out the chairs from under Republicans and Democrats alike, scuttling legislation protecting young undocumented immigrants and fueling the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
Whether waiting for Trump this time is a smart idea or an outright abdication of Congress’ constitutional role depends largely on partisan affiliation.
“It’s Sen. McConnell’s decision to make the United States Senate a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trump administration,” Durbin said. “It’s a shame. We used to be a separate institution.”
Others aren’t so downcast.
“The president’s got a learning curve on this stuff. He didn’t grow up in West Virginia, you know, with a gun in every room of the house,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who is among a handful of senators in close consultation with the president. “He’s processing a lot of different ideas. … It’s not a terrible process.”
Toomey said things were different in 2013 when he negotiated a background checks bill with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School because President Barack Obama already had a “predetermined position” on the need to enact new gun regulations.
“It’s not surprising that he would have that well-defined set of views. Whereas President Trump hasn’t spent a lot of time in a legislative role,” Toomey said.
McConnell established the ground rules in August after a wave of mass shootings, saying the Senate would act, but only with the president’s explicit support for a proposal.
Since then, the Senate’s just been … waiting. No hearings, no committee markups, little floor debate and not even the sort of wide-ranging private discussions by big “gangs” that used to assemble in the Senate during legislative crunches.
And as most Senate vets will tell you, those gangs rarely made law anyway — falling short in their attempts to reform immigration or reduce the deficit. And guns is such a tough political issue for Republicans that the Trump-first legislative strategy is seen as the only way forward.
“It’s so fraught, not only with the particulars of the legislation, but the politics around it. It’s really complicated stuff,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “There was never a straight line, linear path to get to a solution on this.”
The scene on Capitol Hill this week was at times absurd: Attorney General William Barr and White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland met with a host of senators about a background checks proposal. But after it leaked, the White House quickly distanced itself from the draft — even though the president had tasked them with discussing the issue. Some senators said privately that Barr was advocating for the draft plan.
Trump himself acknowledged Thursday that things were “going very slowly … because we want to make sure it’s right.”
Given the uncertainty, Republicans believe waiting on Trump before taking any risks on controversial legislation is “brilliant,” as Isakson put it. Sitting back and waiting for a presidential endorsement might not win any awards for courage, but senior lawmakers believe the party is avoiding unnecessary heartbreak and political risk by holding back.
“Our view on this is right,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of Senate GOP leadership. “This does not go anywhere unless we explicitly know what the president’s willing to do. And the best place to figure that out is probably not seeing how we react to trial balloons.”
McConnell “drew a line and said: ‘We’ll vote on it, but it needs to be something the president will sign.’ And that gives him some standing to deal with the House with some degree of clout,” Isakson said.
Manchin, Toomey and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the three senators who have been talking to Trump most frequently on guns, have been upbeat and unwilling to criticize the process directly because they believe it might birth an incremental win on background checks despite the uncertain nature of the negotiations.
The three met with Barr on Wednesday and Murphy, the most liberal of the three, said he “can understand” why Barr is talking to Republicans, then bringing their opinions back to Trump before making a move. Manchin, a former governor, said Trump’s style is familiar to him: “That’s the way things worked. It comes from the top down.”
But seeing rank-and-file senators, outside advocacy groups and administration officials lobby the president every which way, while the Senate simply waits is too much for some.
In an earlier time, the Senate might have deployed its committees to move legislation or produce a working draft. But no more.
“Republicans are literally waiting around for the president and he’s literally waiting around to not have to say” anything, said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the No. 3 Democrat. “Somebody’s got to say, ‘I’m doing this,’ and move forward.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.