White House

AG Barr takes temperature of Senate GOP on gun background checks

But there's still confusion about what President Donald Trump will ultimately support

Attorney General William Barr spent a second day on Capitol Hill speaking with Congressional members about gun legislation. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Attorney General William Barr continued to take the temperature of Republican senators on expanding background checks Wednesday after a working document started circulating publicly.

“As the president has made clear he’s interested in exploring meaningful solutions that will actually protect people, make people safer,” the attorney general said. “And I’m up here just kicking around some ideas, getting perspectives, so I can be in a better position to advise the president. The president has made no decision yet on these issues.”

[Senate Democrats prepare marathon floor session on gun violence]

There was no shortage of confusion Wednesday after the Daily Caller published a copy of the document, describing it as an “idea sheet.” It surfaced after Barr and Eric Ueland, the White House’s legislative affairs director, met Tuesday with Republican lawmakers, including House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri.

The document suggests expanding federal firearm background checks to all commercial sales, in an effort to close the gun show loophole, and it would provide for civil enforcement penalties if firearms dealers fail to maintain proper records of sales. The document describes the proposal as consistent with past legislation from Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa.

The White House told reporters Wednesday that the document was not a statement of an administration position.

“I haven’t shared any list of proposals with senators during visits, and I actually haven’t seen what you’re talking about, but there are a number of different proposals that are being considered,” Barr said when asked about the document.

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, one of the Democratic voices leading the call for expanding background checks and other regulations on firearms, was among the members with whom Barr was expected to meet late Wednesday.

Murphy was enthusiastic about the continued engagement from the Trump administration, and he said he understood why Barr and Ueland were working the Senate hallways.

“You would much rather have the broad support of your party’s caucuses than the minority of them,” Murphy said. “A Democratic president would probably be trying to see where the sort of progressive wing, where his party stood on a proposal just like they’re trying to figure out where the conservative wing of their party stands.”

Murphy also acknowledged it was somewhat awkward to have the attorney general on Capitol Hill without assurances he would be speaking for Trump.

“A Democratic president probably wouldn’t send somebody up here who isn’t speaking on behalf of the president,” Murphy said. “That’s a critical difference.”

Reluctance to restrict

Also among Barr’s stops was a Wednesday afternoon visit to the Capitol hideaway office of Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy.

“I encourage the attorney general as they get closer, and I think they are getting closer, to come over and visit with senators as a group, whoever wants to come," Kennedy said after the meeting. “The attorney general has a lot of credibility over here.”

Kennedy said Barr and Ueland were not lobbying for support of a specific plan. Kennedy said he made clear that he would be willing to consider any legislative proposal endorsed by the president.

“I’m willing to look at any legislation that they want to propose. I always find the president persuasive, but not dispositive,” Kennedy told reporters. “I’m going to vote on whether or not I think the bill will work. When you try to further curtail, or initially curtail, a constitutional right the burden of proof is on the proponent.”

But as is true of other Republican senators, Kennedy expressed reluctance to restrict Second Amendment rights.

“The Second is just as important as the Eighth or the Fourth or the First,” Kennedy said.

Murphy again said he thought there could be a different result from the aftermath of past mass shootings, noting that gun policy was among the top issues for voters who backed Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.

“They are at the table ... and we’re talking substantively. That’s good news,” Murphy said of the Trump administration. “I also know that they’re hearing from the gun lobby way more than they’re hearing from me and Pat Toomey.”

“There’s a simple answer to what Senate Republicans will vote for: it’s whatever the president endorses. Not all of them, but I guarantee you we will get to 60 votes on any background check proposal that President Trump supports,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “And I think everybody up here kind of gets that.”

Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.

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