House Dems punt on assault weapons and funding the police

House Dems punt on assault weapons and funding the police

House Democrats have abandoned plans to pass an ambitious package of public safety bills, including legislation to ban so-called assault weapons, after days of tumult within their caucus.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team made the decision to punt the vote in a closed-door meeting Wednesday, with several key groups of Democrats still raising concerns with some of the bills, such as a lack of police accountability measures.

With only four votes to spare, party leaders lacked the necessary support to pass the package this week. But senior lawmakers will still work to resolve the remaining problems so legislation can be ready when the House returns to vote sometime in August on other measures, according to a Democrat familiar with the negotiations.

“The agreement is, we have to get it right,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, a group that has raised issues with the package. “I will be discussing accountabilities for the bill. We want to make sure that we’re proceeding and that we are united and the Congressional Black Caucus will continue to be steering the process.”

Pelosi confirmed those plans to reporters Wednesday, acknowledging that the caucus has always planned to return when, or if, the Senate is able to complete work on a sweeping prescription drug and health care funding package: “The recognition that we have to come back … has made our plans a little bit different.”

The package of bills was intended to satisfy moderates — with measures to invest in local policing — as well as progressives, with the first vote to ban semi-automatic weapons since 1994. But other factions in the caucus, including the CBC, said they were skeptical of the timing of the policing legislation with only months remaining until the midterms. Progressives, too, demanded more safeguards placed on the grants to law enforcement organizations.

“We have a broad-based caucus that has multiple interests,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said as he left a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning. “The overwhelming majority want to make sure that people understand we want safe communities.”

Instead, the House will pivot its attention to a “big cat” public safety bill, a “Tiger King”-inspired bill from activist Carole Baskin, along with other noncontroversial legislation. Those will be the last votes for at least a week, as the House heads on its August recess and awaits Senate action on the drug pricing and health care bill.

Passing a policing and public safety package was always going to be difficult for Democrats — particularly with such slim margins and so soon before a potentially disastrous midterm election. For instance, it took months for lawmakers, led by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), to land the votes for the assault weapons ban, with several rural Democrats opposed to the measure.

The trickier political problem wound up being something else entirely: How to support police without ignoring widespread calls among Democrats for more oversight.

Moderate Democrats have pushed for months for floor votes to show their commitment to supporting local police, after a scourge of GOP attack ads last cycle portrayed their party as anti-cop and soft on crime. Those attacks, according to Democrats’ own campaign arm, were “alarmingly potent” in key swing districts, and many battleground members believe it cost the party seats in the last election — which narrowed their House majority as they expected to expand it.

As the package of bills moved closer to the floor, however, progressives and Black Democrats raised alarm bells that the party shouldn’t be supporting more cash and support for policing programs without any kind of new accountability standards. The debate became highly nuanced: A bipartisan bill to increase the hiring and pay of police officers, particularly in local areas, became a bigger conversation about the role of policing.

“The debate is not about the function of policing. It’s about the definition of policing. And I think that that’s been the hard part,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a senior progressive.

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Author: By Sarah Ferris, Jordain Carney and Anthony Adragna