Feinstein in the News

By Lesley Clark

Originally published in the Sacramento Bee.

Five key lawmakers are likely to decide the fate of gun control legislation in the U.S. Senate.

Congress insists it wants to do something about preventing mass shootings. But two weeks after the massacre in Parkland, where a gunman killed 17 people, it has nothing to show for its concerns beyond a promised Senate hearing later this month.

President Donald Trump complicated Republican efforts by seemingly embracing Democratic proposals. But because it takes 60 votes to advance legislation in the Senate, one influential member can provide momentum, and possibly have life or death power, for or against any proposal.

These are the people to watch in the weeks ahead:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Even as members of his caucus expressed astonishment at Trump’s embrace of Democratic gun control ideas, McConnell didn’t say a word about guns or school safety on the Senate floor Thursday.

But late in the day he made it clear: The Senate won't debate gun legislation next week. Instead it will turn its attention to a banking deregulation bill.

McConnell told reporters he still hoped to vote on a narrow fix that would bolster the nation's background check system, there is no timeline.

"I'm hoping there is a way forward," he said.

McConnell's reticence reflected his operating strategy: The master tactician is unlikely to put anything up for a vote in the Senate unless he knows he’s got the magic 60.

Trump made it clear this week he wants a “comprehensive bill” but McConnell said earlier this week that Congress should stick to where it can find common ground — a narrowly-tailored tweak that would bolster the nation’s background check system, but not expand it.

“There are bipartisan differences about how to address this issue that continually snag every effort,” McConnell said. Instead, the Senate should focus on “something we all agree on, not in any way claiming it's a panacea, but at least show some progress.”

But as the Senate left for the weekend, it was clear progress remains far off.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. The influential veteran lawmakers will hold a hearing March 14 to examine how government and social media companies may have failed to prevent the Parkland school shooter from obtaining a weapon. The gunman, Nikolas Cruz, gave law enforcement plenty of opportunities to investigate and arrest him — and even take away his guns — by threatening classmates and making violent statements.

Grassley said he supports some modest gun control measures, including the background check fix. Grassley said he met with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and John Cornyn, R-Texas to find areas of common ground.

But so far it’s unclear how far Grassley is willing to go.

“There’s a tendency among Republicans and Democrats on gun policy to hold out for legislation favored by groups on the extremes of the ideological spectrum,” Grassley told his colleagues. “We appear to be in a unique moment where there is a real opportunity to work together on legislation that can advance a common cause: a safer and more civil society.”

He is backing legislation to offer Department of Justice grants to schools looking to improve their facilities to deter potential school shooters.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Feinstein’s stock rose this week as Trump embraced the top Judiciary Committee Democrat’s call to raise the minimum age for purchasing assault rifles. And Grassley said Thursday that he’d support Feinstein’s legislative effort to ban bump stocks if regulations fail to do so.

A picture of a gleeful Feinstein reacting to Trump immediately went viral. The senator said Thursday she believes as long as students keep up the pressure Congress will have to act.

Democrats want to do more than tweak the federal background check system, and Feinstein said she’s cheered by the fact that more than 300,000 people have signed up to attend a march in Washington in support of gun control later this month.

“A lot depends on the young people,” she said.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. In the wake of a massacre in a Texas church in November, the Senate Majority Whip crafted a bill to strengthen the federal background check system that as currently enforced didn’t prevent the shooter in the incident to purchase a gun.

The bill draws unusual support from gun control advocates and the National Rifle Association, which said the flawed NICS system, which is used to screen gun purchasers, was letting people through who shouldn't be allowed to purchase guns. They charge it also spits out false positives on law-abiding citizens.

Cornyn, the GOP's vote counter in the Senate, predicted the bill would get "upwards of up to 80 votes.”

But the legislation faces opposition from some Republican senators who warn it Trump suggested it wasn’t enough.

Cornyn seemed reluctant to go much further, saying a narrow solution is the best the Senate could do. “This is the one piece of legislation I’m confident can be passed,” Cornyn said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Rubio has been pressured by Parkland students to take action and his role as the senator from the state where the most recent school shooting took place could be critical.

Rubio, who has rarely bucked the party line on gun votes, took to the Senate floor Thursday to urge Congress to pass narrowly tailored bills on school safety and mental health that have support from both parties. He argued that local law enforcement and school officials could have prevented the massacre.

The Florida Republican barely mentioned guns.

He stopped short of endorsing a bill that would raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm, instead urging Congress to quickly pass bills related to mental health, school safety and the background check system.

He said he remained open to raising the age limit for gun purchases and limiting the size of magazines, but contended that the provisions don’t have enough support to clear the Senate. He also endorsed legislation to create a gun violence restraining order to give law enforcement and family members the ability to obtain a court order to remove guns from someone who is a threat.