WASHINGTON — After President Joe Biden’s giant COVID-19 relief bill passed Congress, he made a prime-time address to the nation and presided over a Rose Garden ceremony.
But there wasn’t so much as a statement from the White House after the House passed legislation that would require background checks for gun purchases, a signature Democratic issue for decades.
Biden’s views on gun regulation have evolved along with his party — at one point reluctant to impose too many restrictions that blue-collar Democrats opposed — to a near-unanimous call to do something about gun violence after a spate of mass shootings.
In the early months of Biden’s presidency, even popular proposals like background checks are lower on his list of priorities and their prospects in the Senate cloudy.
The two bills that passed the House last week would expand background checks on gun purchases, the first significant movement on gun control since Democrats took control of both chambers of Congress and the White House.
They are among a number of major bills House Democrats have pushed through in recent weeks, including legislation to expand voting rights and support union organizing, that now face an uncertain fate in the Senate. Supporters of the background check bills are hoping to see Biden become more actively involved.
“I hope and I expect that President Biden will be willing to get engaged in hand to hand advocacy in the Senate on background checks,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who has led the push for gun control in the Senate.
While Biden was more conservative on gun issues early in his Senate career, in the mid-1990s he helped pass the Brady bill, which mandated federal background checks for gun purchases, and he wrote the 1994 crime bill that included a 10-year assault weapons ban.
During his presidential campaign, Biden embraced an expansive gun-control agenda, backing an assault weapons ban and buyback program that was once seen as highly controversial and won’t see action in a divided Congress.
On the third anniversary of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting last month, Biden issued a statement reiterating his support for such measures, prompting the National Rifle Association to label him “increasingly hostile” toward gun rights.
“Today, I am calling on Congress to enact commonsense gun law reforms, including requiring background checks on all gun sales, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and eliminating immunity for gun manufacturers who knowingly put weapons of war on our streets,” Biden said in the statement.
But the bills that just passed the House received meager GOP support there and face a much tougher road in the Senate, where 10 Republicans would have to join all 50 Democrats and independents for them to move toward passage.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina, who sponsored one of the bills, suggested Democrats would have to eliminate the 60-vote threshold for passing legislation to move them along.
“I think it’s about time for us to get rid of the filibuster,” Clyburn said in an interview.
But multiple Democrats have expressed opposition to reforming the filibuster, as has Biden himself. That leaves gun-control advocates hoping that the politics of gun control have shifted enough that more Republicans may be open to legislation that advocates argue is widely popular with the American public.
With Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, promising to give the background check bills a vote on the floor, Democrats are hopeful Republicans will step up when they’re put on the spot.
They’re also heartened by the declining influence of the NRA, which filed for bankruptcy this year after being outspent by gun-control groups for the first time during the 2018 election.
“I think the implosion of the NRA, the growing support among the American people and the inevitability of increased support gives us an opportunity we haven’t had before,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said last week. He added: “What’s changed is we now have a president who can put pressure on our colleagues.”
While much of Biden’s gun-control agenda is unlikely to win passage in an evenly divided Senate, some of his proposals can be achieved by prioritizing resources within the federal government. Biden has proposed, for instance, directing the FBI to ensure state and local law enforcement agencies are notified if someone who tries to buy a gun fails a background check. He has also said he’ll ask his attorney general to look for ways to better enforce gun laws.
But the Biden administration has yet to signal how the president himself will get engaged. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden is looking forward to working with Congress “to advance priorities, including repealing gun manufacturers’ liability shields.” She added that he “will look for opportunities to be engaged” on the background check bills.
Democrats still face political headwinds. A Gallup poll last November found that while 57 percent of Americans want stricter gun laws, that marked the lowest number in favor since 2016. And gun sales hit a new record high in January, continuing a surge over the past year.
Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a moderate, have worked together for years to find compromise on background checks.
In a statement, Toomey’s office said the senator remains supportive of a previous bipartisan proposal with Manchin but believes “progress is only possible on this issue if the measure in question is narrow and protects the rights of law-abiding gun owners.”
Still, advocates say with a largely unified Democratic Party and the president on their side, they hope to finally see some movement.
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown USA, pointed in particular to Democratic wins in the 2018 midterms while running openly for gun control as evidence the politics are changing.
“Democrats are in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. The NRA is in the weakest shape it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s become clear that gun-safety laws aren’t only good life-saving policies, they’re good politics.”
Gene Sperling, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations, will lead the oversight for distributing funds from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package, the White House said Monday.
Sperling will take a role similar to the one Biden had as vice-president in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. He will work with the heads of the White House policy councils and federal agencies to get funds out quickly and optimize their effectiveness, press secretary Jen Psaki said.
“The president felt it was important to have a point person who could, of course, pull all these levers,” she said, adding that Sperling will be co-ordinating with officials such as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who she said will be holding a summit on releasing the $130 billion dedicated to K-12 education.
The package, signed into law Thursday, follows more than $4 trillion in pandemic relief. It seeks to fund mass vaccinations, speed hiring, reopen schools, stabilize state and local government finances and halve child poverty. Promised direct payments of $1,400 began to be issued this weekend, but Sperling’s task will involve sums that sprawl across governments as firms such as Goldman Sachs estimate that total growth this year could be 7%.
Sperling, 62, has twice served as director of the White House National Economic Council, making him one of the defining economic policymakers of the past several decades. He lives in California and will be working remotely until he receives the coronavirus vaccine.
As the director for President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 2001, he helped negotiate a measure that was designed to balance the budget as well as China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization. He also helped design policies to relieve child poverty and bring investment into impoverished communities.
Working as the economic council director for President Barack Obama from 2011 to 2014, Sperling oversaw programs that helped revive Detroit after the city filed for bankruptcy, among other efforts that focused on workers and U.S. competitiveness.
The news of Sperling’s appointment was first reported Sunday by The Washington Post.
Joe Biden has launched a publicity blitz for his coronavirus rescue plan but faces disruption from a messaging war with Republicans over an escalating humanitarian emergency at the US-Mexico border.
In brief remarks at the White House on Monday ahead of a national tour, the US president touted the $1.9tn relief package passed by Democrats in Congress last week, Biden’s first major legislative victory.
“In the next 10 days, we will reach two giant goals: 100m shots in people’s arms and 100m cheques in people’s pockets,” he said.
The law will cut child poverty in half, Biden said, and is “focused on rebuilding the backbone of this country – working families, the middle class, people who built this country”.
But it is one thing to pass the bill, another to implement it, the president warned. “The devil is in the details. It requires fastidious oversight … We’re going to have to stay on top of every dollar spent.”
Biden added: “We can do this, we will do this. Help is on the way.”
The president, who has still not held a formal press conference after nearly two months in office, did take one question from a reporter about whether his predecessor Donald Trump should encourage sceptical Republicans to take the coronavirus vaccine.