House Democrats on Friday passed a historic bill to ban so-called assault weapons in response to a spate of mass shootings this year — a major victory for the left after party leaders failed to land the votes for a broader slate of public safety bills also awaiting floor action.
The gun vote, passed 217-213, marks the first time in nearly three decades that lawmakers have attempted to reinstate the long-expired ban on semiautomatic firearms, a huge party priority. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who announced the decision to vote Friday morning, called it “a crucial step in our ongoing fight against the deadly epidemic of gun violence in our nation.”
Still, the decision to vote on only that bill — and not a handful of policing bills also under consideration — has stung for many centrists Democrats in the caucus, who were eager to vote on bills to support law enforcement before leaving Washington this week. Hours earlier, moderate leader Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Congressional Black Caucus chief Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) had secured an eleventh-hour deal to resolve many Black Democrats’ concerns with those policing bills.
But that compromise, which included some new accountability measures for police departments, infuriated many House progressives, including those in the Black Caucus. Several liberal Black Democrats were particularly “livid” at the language, according to one person familiar with the discussions, and some complained that the accountability language did too little during a closed-door meeting of Black Caucus members Friday morning.
The centrists still made a last-gasp push to iron out concerns with that language Friday afternoon, as Gottheimer, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and others spent over an hour in Pelosi’s office. Privately, some of them seethed over their cops bills being pushed into next month, though none indicated they would be willing to derail passage of the gun vote on Friday to force leadership’s hand on the other bills, according to multiple lawmakers and aides.
“We’re working on that. We’ve come a long way together,” said Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), a former police officer. As for the stalled cops package, he said: “It got caught in a time warp.”
Some members were more outspoken, largely blaming liberal Democrats who refused the policing deal.
“Let’s be clear that Seattle and Portland and these blue cities are also facing historic crime waves. So it’s not just a swing district problem,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla), a centrist who has backed the cops package.
“It’s a problem all across America and it’s shameful that we have a handful of Democrats who are unwilling to do what’s right for the American people to keep them safer,” Murphy added.
Even after a frenetic bout of arm-twisting Friday, Democrats remained short of the votes needed for the policing package. Pelosi and her leadership team made a decision around lunchtime to vote only on the assault weapons ban — decoupling it from the contentious policing bills — to satisfy a large chunk of their party eager to vote before August.
“I can tell you, I’m very comfortable that we will come back the second week of August, and we will then deal with voting on reconciliation and the other key part” of the policing package, Beatty told reporters after meeting with Pelosi and the centrists.
Progressives cheered the move, complaining that they had been left out of the negotiations on the cops bills entirely and were unfairly taking the blame for sinking the package.
“This is what the families are asking for,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a leader in the CPC group. “We have to get our priorities straight and we are able to do that … it’s about prioritizing families that are suffering and we are doing that today.”
Notably, landing the votes for the gun vote wasn’t easy for Democrats: Several of their own members, largely from rural districts, opposed reinstating the assault weapons ban, though ultimately they prevailed with the help of GOP Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Chris Jacobs, who represents Buffalo, N.Y., and watched his own career come to an unexpected end after he voiced support for the semi-automatic weapons ban after the deadly shooting in his home city.
GOP leadership made a last-minute play to try to sink the gun bill given the tight margin. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was spotted speaking briefly with Jacobs just off the House floor.
Jacobs told POLITICO afterward that Republican leaders asked if he would flip his vote. If he and Fitzpatrick both voted no the bill would have tied and failed.
“[It] wasn’t arm twisting. It was just an ask,” Jacobs said.
Five Democrats were opposed: Reps. Henry Cuellar of Texas, Jared Golden of Maine, Vicente Gonzalez of Texas, Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Kurt Schrader of Oregon
Democrats were keen in holding the vote on the guns bill before leaving for recess because of the imminent decline in their margin: A special election in Minnesota in two weeks will mean that Democrats can only lose three votes, instead of four, given unified Republican opposition.
“This is an important vote today to demonstrate that we’ve heard their cries for a response to end this kind of carnage in our country,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who spent months pushing for fellow Democrats to support the bill. “And we’re very pleased that we’re gonna have a vote today.”
At times, it looked possible that Democrats might also tackle the policing package on Friday. Both Beatty and Gottheimer worked to sell their language to fellow Democrats throughout the morning. But progressives insisted they had enough votes to kill the deal.
In a closed-door meeting of the CBC on Friday morning, senior Democrats like House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) urged members to support the Gottheimer-Beatty deal, according to multiple people in the room. But the pushback was too great with Democrats’ slim vote margin.
“There was no failure here today,” Beatty said later Friday, recounting her efforts to reach a deal but also listen to her members. “We will come back and look at the remainder of the package.”
Party leaders had already abandoned plans to pass the policing bills earlier this week, with progressives, the CBC and moderates divided on various pieces of the far-reaching package. But last-minute negotiating between Beatty and Gottheimer on Thursday had revived some hopes to shake loose the policing bills, particularly after the Senate’s mood-boosting deal on a huge bill involving health, taxes and climate.
Moderates argued that passing all the measures would have meant a major political win ahead of the House’s August recess, albeit a largely symbolic one given that the Senate is highly unlikely to act on most of them.
For vulnerable Democrats in particular, they demanded a vote to help them tout their pro-policing bona fides back home, where GOP attack ads have seized on rising crime to slam them.
“Right now, we should be voting to support the police. Ninety-nine percent of Democrats in America support the police,” said one vulnerable Democrat frustrated by the progressive’s revolt on the bill and who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity. “If we don’t hold the House, it’s all for nothing.”
But the opposition remained too strong among progressives, including those in the Black Caucus who expressed concerns about the proposed package when the broader group huddled virtually Friday morning. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who leads the CPC, had offered her own slate of policing bills to leadership — a list of roughly a dozen bills — though it did not include the two bills that moderates most wanted.
Several CPC members also expressed concern about being rushed into an agreement without time to consult and deliberate further.
It wasn’t just resistance inside the Capitol: Powerful civil rights groups like the ACLU and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights also voiced opposition to many of the provisions in the policing legislation.
The bills to bolster funding for local police “do not include correspondingly rigorous accountability and oversight provisions” for those officers, according to a letter sent by Leadership Council President and CEO Maya Wiley and executive vice president of government affairs Jesselyn McCurdy to congressional leaders, which was obtained by POLITICO.
Anthony Adragna and Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.