WASHINGTON — More than three weeks after the Newtown school shooting, pressing financial talks are threatening to derail the modest efforts being considered to tighten access to guns.
The failure of President Barack Obama and congressional lawmakers to reach a comprehensive solution to the fiscal cliff has set the stage for another fight next month to avoid the rest of the mandatory spending cuts and to raise the nation’s debt limit. The deadline to increase the nation’s borrowing cap may be as soon as February 15, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
A senior White House official acknowledged last week to BuzzFeed that Congress’ “limited bandwidth” will be a challenge for Obama's second term agenda in the short term in the aftermath of the deal — something that is especially damaging to efforts on gun control as emotions grow cooler each day after the shooting.
“They’re definitely going to get muddled,” said one Democratic operative close to the White House.
Obama has tasked Vice President Joe Biden to lead a taskforce in response to the shooting, which killed 26 students and educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, but his group isn’t scheduled to report its findings until the end of the month — by which time the administration’s focus will be turning once again to fiscal issues. Democrats predict the Biden group’s report will deal heavily with mental health issues, and largely leave gun control issues to Congress.
“The President has already urged Congress when it comes back to work to take up initiatives — legislation to ban assault weapons, to ban high-capacity magazines, and to improve our background checks system because it does have loopholes,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday. Obama endorsed those proposals in the week after the shooting and has expressed support for the legislation on the Hill but hasn’t yet invested political capital in making it a reality.
Items under discussion by the Biden floated Sunday in The Washington Post included a national gun database, something White House officials said was under discussion, even as Capitol Hill sources said it would be a far heavier lift on their side of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Of course, no matter how intense the administration’s support for gun control legislation is, there is still almost no chance anything significant will pass in the next two years. Indeed, unless it has to do with federal spending, the debt, or taxes, little of anything is likely to make it to Obama’s desk, at least in the foreseeable future.
Over the next several months, Congress will first deal with the debt ceiling, then repeal or replacement of the so-called “sequester” package of spending cuts, and then a government shutdown fight.
None of those are going to be as easy for Democrats and Republicans to figure out as the fiscal cliff. And even if the two parties do find a way to navigate those waters without sending the country into an economic crisis, the partisan bad blood, and intraparty stress, could well mean that compromise is all but dead in Washington.
And if you think these fiscal issues are partisan, wait until you see what happens if Democrats try to revive the assault weapons ban or other controversial gun control measure.
Speaker John Boehner may not have quite the number of members he had in the 112th Congress, but his conference is now even more conservative, and they will continue to set the agenda in the House. House Republicans remain squarely in the pro-gun — and pro-NRA — camp, so there is virtually no chance legislation will make it to the floor of the House.
When asked what was more likely, passage of gun control legislation or Boehner, a devout Catholic, suddenly becoming a pagan, a senior GOP leadership aide quipped that it is “probably the latter.”
Even in the Senate where there is significant Democratic support for something, it remains unclear whether gun control advocates can get a measure through the upper chamber.
Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated some willingness to address guns, he is still a fierce supporter of gun rights, and Republicans can easily filibuster anything that doesn’t have broad bipartisan support.
More fundamentally, it looks as if Democrats are expecting Obama to take the lead on the issue. Leadership aides said the chances of something passing will depend on what Biden comes up with, and Democrats more broadly argued they will need the president’s bully pulpit to move legislation.
But for now the White House isn’t seeing it that way.
"This isn't being led by the administration," another Democratic operative who has worked on gun control issues in the past said. "Congress has already led the way with what they hope will be passable.”