Twenty-four hours after President Donald Trump again grabbed a political third rail with both hands during a free-wheeling meeting on gun control, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill were left looking to him to lead.
It’s still an open question whether Congress will get that from the president, or be left to pick up the pieces after Trump bucked GOP orthodoxy on an issue that excites his base.
It’s the second time lawmakers have been left scrambling after a listening session. Just a month ago, during a similar meeting on the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Democrats left with the sense the president was on their side only to realize days later that his staff had reeled him back in.
A similar feeling settled over congressional stakeholders on Thursday, with Democrats cautiously optimistic they could push through gun-control legislation in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, and Republicans biding their time to see whether Trump walks back his most unorthodox proposals.
“Only the president, this president, will have the power to overcome [the National Rifle Association’s] strength and finally get his Republican allies on the Hill to move to a place that embraces some common-sense gun-safety policies,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.
During that listening session on Wednesday, the president appeared to endorse gun-control proposals that run counter to Republican doctrines. The National Rifle Association, which spent millions to propel Trump to the presidency, dismissed his suggestions as “bad policy.” But Democrats were determined on Thursday to use Trump’s comments to push him in the direction of a background-checks bill authored by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.)—and hold him accountable politically if he reneges.
“Only the president can create a serious negotiation around background checks,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said. “I think it’s hard for Pat and Joe to do it without the president actively pushing Republicans to the table.”
Many Republicans, though, want the Senate to immediately pass Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn’s (R-TX) bill, known as “Fix NICS,” that would incentivize states and federal agencies to submit data to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Checks Systems (NICS). Beyond that, most Republicans are hesitant to embrace other measures the president suggested.
“I think we need to start with something that’s attainable, and that would be Fix NICS, and then build from there,” Cornyn said, adding that Congress shouldn’t wait on the president to put a legislative proposal forward like he did on immigration reform.
But others in Republican leadership are looking to the president for a path forward, in part because any Senate bill is expected to hit a logjam in the House, where GOP leaders there have vowed to include legislative language on concealed-carry. Such a provision would face resistance in the Senate and likely wouldn’t pass—a point Trump himself made during Wednesday’s meeting.
“The president is going to have to narrow his list of issues he would like to see addressed and try to figure out what’s realistic,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said.
Still, some lawmakers liked what they heard.
“He’s got a process where he’s engaging the American people and he’s putting us on the stage with him while he’s doing it. That’s a good way to run a business,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) said. “There are a lot of Republican presidents who might not could’ve done that. But Donald Trump could and he did and he handled it the right way.”
It is unclear how exactly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will want to go about the process—or when that debate would officially begin. McConnell told reporters on Thursday that the Senate would not take up gun-related legislation next week.
Lawmakers—particularly those who have authored gun-related legislation—are looking for the president to hold firm on his commitments. For Manchin, that means expanding background checks for gun purchases, in the form of a bill he offered in 2013 with Toomey.
“He’s going to be the most important person at the table,” Manchin said of the president. “If supports something that is reasonable … then it has a chance. If not, then it doesn’t. It’s as simple as that.”
Democrats acknowledged, though, that they are dealing with a president whose unpredictability has come back to haunt them before. At a similar listening session in January, Trump told lawmakers he would sign any immigration bill that Congress sends him. He quickly reneged and put forward a plan that only received 39 votes in the Senate.
Schumer put forward Democrats’ three-point plan on Thursday and insisted that its success will be contingent upon Trump giving enough Republicans the political cover to vote against the NRA’s interests.
That might be a tall order.
“I’m from Wyoming. I know what the Second Amendment means to me,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) said.