Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday said he was awaiting word from the White House on potential gun legislation, but laid down a far more aggressive approach on any possible Supreme Court vacancy that might occur in the next months, saying his troops are ready for a last-minute election-year confirmation battle.
Mr. McConnell, previewing the landscape of legislative action as Congress prepared to return from a lengthy summer vacation, said any gun bill will have to be able to pass the Senate for him to even bring it to the floor.
That seems to rule out holding test votes on things like a ban on semi-automatic rifles, which Democrats desperately want.
But Mr. McConnell, speaking to radio host Hugh Hewitt, said he is waiting to see what the White House decided it wants to pursue in the wake of last month’s mass shootings that reignited the gun control debate.
“The administration is in the process of studying what they’re prepared to support, if anything, and I expect to get an answer [to] that next week,” the Kentucky Republican told Mr. Hewitt. “If the president is in favor of a number of things that he has discussed openly and publicly and I know that if we pass it, it [will] become law, I’ll put it on the floor.”
Mr. McConnell said he’s expressed interest in making law and not simply having “serial votes” on the floor. He rebuffed Democrats’ calls last month to immediately reconvene the Senate to take up House-passed legislation on gun background checks, and instead ordered three Senate committee chairmen to explore what they can do with bipartisan support in the upper chamber.
President Trump had expressed an interest in the background check issue after the El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, shootings last month that collectively claimed the lives of more than 30 people.
But after another shooting in West Texas over the weekend in which at least seven people were killed, the president downplayed that aspect of the debate as the administration prepares legislation to expedite executions for people found guilty of mass killings.
“Going back, even five or six or seven years, for the most part, as strong as you make your background checks, they would not have stopped any of it,” the president told reporters.
Democrats say new gun controls, including bans on some semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines, as well as “red flag” laws that allow law enforcement to temporarily seize guns from dangerous people, need to be a top priority when lawmakers return to Washington next week from their summer break.
“When will enough be enough?” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “President Trump and Senate Republicans need to stand up to the NRA and say it’s time to take action, it’s time to save lives.”
“It’s time to lead on this issue. Put the House-passed background checks bill on the Senate floor for debate and a vote,” the New York Democrat tweeted.
Mr. Schumer is likely to be much less happy with Mr. McConnell’s more aggressive stance on a potential Supreme Court opening.
The GOP leader said Republicans would “absolutely” support filling a potential vacancy on the Supreme Court if one happens between now and the 2020 election.
“We’re not going to leave a single vacancy behind by the end of next year,” he told Mr. Hewitt.
Democrats have accused Mr. McConnell of a double standard, after he famously cited the looming 2016 presidential election as reason to slow-walk the confirmation process for Judge Merrick Garland, who President Obama nominated to fill the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia that year.
But Mr. McConnell said Tuesday that historically, Supreme Court nominees don’t get confirmed in the throes of a presidential election campaign when the White House is held by a different party than the Senate. That was the case in 2016, but isn’t the case now.
“There was nothing I did that would not have been done had the shoe been on the other foot had there been a … Republican president and a Democratic Senate,” Mr. McConnell said on Tuesday. “So look, they can whine about this all day long, but under the Constitution there is co-responsibility for appointments — the president makes the nomination and the Senate confirms. We are partners in the personnel business, up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently underwent treatment for pancreatic and lung cancer, sparking speculation of a new vacancy, though she said over the weekend she’s on the way to being “very well.”
There has also been intermittent talk about the potential retirement of Justice Clarence Thomas, though he has pushed back against those rumors this year.
Mr. McConnell on Tuesday also said Democrats’ priorities such as the Green New Deal environmental and social overhaul were unlikely to make it through the Senate, and that voters will have their say next year.
“If the Democrats get power again, they’re going to turn us into a socialist country,” he said. “The Green New Deal, ‘Medicare for All,’ add it all up, and you have fundamentally changed America into a country it’s never been before. That’s what’s really at stake next year, not all of this hot rhetoric, but the cold, hard reality of what they’ll do if they get power.”
He also shot back at those critics on the left who’ve labeled him “Moscow Mitch” for not moving quickly to pass election security legislation. Mr. McConnell says the administration has already taken major steps behind the scenes against Russia and other potential election interferers, and he said to call him soft on Moscow is wrong.
“Unbelievable for a Cold Warrior like me who spent a career standing up to the Russians to be given a moniker like that. It’s an effort to smear me,” he said. “So they’ll say anything and do anything. This is what we’re up against with the hard left today in America.”
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