WASHINGTON (AP) – As the nation struggles with yet another mass shooting and faces a settlement over the deaths of black men in police hands, President Joe Biden is calling for action. Going beyond that, however, turns out to be much harder.
Three months after his presidency, Biden’s robust agenda runs up against the reality of his narrow democratic majority on Capitol Hill and the Senate’s limited ability to tackle several pieces of major legislation at once. As the White House first focuses on a comprehensive coronavirus assistance package and now a widespread infrastructure plan that is likely to dominate the congressional calendar for several months, topics such as arms control and police reform are likely to take a back seat.
Biden on Friday insisted that was not the case, saying in particular on the issue of arms control: “I have never prioritized this.”
It’s about Biden, many of the key promises he made to Democratic voters – especially black voters who helped drive him to the White House – both about his priorities and his ability to maneuver in Washington, where issues as gun control has disappeared for years. The mass shootings as well as the renewed focus on police killings of Americans of color after incidents in Chicago and a suburb of Minneapolis have increased the demands for action
DeAnna Hoskins, President and CEO of Just LeadershipUSA, an advocacy group for police reform, suggested that activists are willing to be patient, but not for long. She welcomed the City’s recent arms control notices, which took modest steps to tighten background checks, but said “these actions do not go far enough.”
“They don’t have the tentacles down to really hit where rubber hits the road,” Hoskins said.
The White House says it can multitask and publicly push for its infrastructure plan while working to build support among moderate Democrats and Republicans for gun control and behind-the-scenes police reform.
“In this building, the legislative team, senior members of the White House staff, we are working on several fronts at the same time,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
Officials say Biden’s less prominent role in legislative discussions on weapons and policing is by design, out of the risk of further politicization of already complicated negotiations. They also argue that issuing police work orders could undermine any momentum in the Capitol Hill case, and they are encouraged by burgeoning discussions in Congress, such as negotiations between Republican Sen. Tim Scott and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker.
Nevertheless, Biden himself has described his legislative strategy as a “one at a time” approach. He said last month that successful presidents make progress because “they know how to time what they do, order it, decide and prioritize what needs to be done.”
Implicit in this statement was that some priorities had to wait their turn.
The bite has taken some executive action on weapons and targeted homemade “ghost weapons” and the stabilizing braces for handguns that allow them to be fired from a shoulder, like a rifle. He has not proposed new legislation to revoke gun manufacturers’ liability protection or to tighten federal background checks, despite promising to send such legislation to Congress on his first day in office. Instead, he supports legislation proposed by House Democrats.
On police reform, Attorney General Merrick Garland’s era lifted the boundaries of consent decisions, the legally binding agreements used to enforce police reforms. But Biden has not yet taken any significant executive action and focuses largely instead on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act on Capitol Hill.
This focus has been embraced by some major police reform groups, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, whose interim president and CEO, Wade Henderson, said legislation was the best approach to such an unmanageable issue.
“This case is too urgent to delay, and Congress is by far the most appropriate place to consider changes in police liability legislation,” he said in a statement.
But the bill approved by the House sits in the Senate – and this is where the counting of votes becomes difficult for the Biden White House.
Legislation on weapons and policing cannot be considered in Congress through the budget voting process, the route that Democrats followed to pass viral aid with just their party’s 50 votes in the Senate. It’s the same way they appear on the right track to tackle infrastructure. That means Democrats need 10 Republicans to join them to pass firearms or police legislation under current Senate procedures.
“I strongly urge my Republican friends in Congress who refuse to raise the House bill to bring it up now,” Biden said Friday, referring to the gun control measure. “Who in the name of God needs a weapon that can hold 100 rounds or 40 rounds or 20 rounds. It’s just wrong and I will not give up until it’s done.
Key lawmakers, including Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Have tried to construct a path around the stalemate by engaging colleagues in bipartisan negotiations. The House proposal to extend background checks is similar to one that came closest to passing in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings, but senators are now confused in differences in terms of regulations, including firearms transfers between family members. No breakthrough is displayed.
“Ultimately, Congress must do its job,” the rep said. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., And recalled the president’s message to lawmakers during a two-hour private session with members of the Congressional Black Caucus this week.
Logjam in the Senate on such high-priority issues has increased the pressure on Biden to embrace a growing movement within the Democratic Party to remove the 60-vote threshold needed to pass the most legislation. But here he also faces opposition within his own party – Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are both opposed to removing the filibuster. Manchin also opposes house-controlled gun control bills, making their passage into the Senate even more difficult.
The White House is in frequent contact with advocacy groups for gun control. Most say they are happy with the first round of executive action that Biden took and cautiously optimistic about his promise to work to pass Capitol Hill legislation.
Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said that while “I always want the Biden administration to do more,” he does not see a “lack of action” from Democrats in Congress or in the White House.
“I think the key question is how much pressure we will be able to put on the Senate Republicans. How many more daily episodes of gun violence, how many more mass shootings are we going to have to watch? ” he said.
Horwitz said: “The state ship takes some time to turn around – but we do not have time because people die every single day.”
Melina Abdullah, a co-director of Black Lives Matter-Grassroots, which coordinates chapter-based work on-site for BLM, said Biden’s focus on infrastructure is a distraction from police crises playing out in color communities.
“It’s been 160 days since Biden said to black people, ‘You’ve always had my back, and I get yours,'” Abdullah said in a statement sent to the Associated Press.
AP writers Lisa Mascaro and Aaron Morrison contributed.