WASHINGTON - Congress is stuck in a holding pattern on tougher gun restrictions after a string of mass shootings that killed 53 in August alone as lawmakers wait for President Donald Trump to decide how he wants to respond.
White House aides briefed Republican senators on potential legislative options at their private weekly luncheon Tuesday - including possibly expanding the federal background check system for gun buyers and encouraging states to create systems to temporarily seize guns from individuals judged to be dangerous - but they gave no indication of what Trump himself is willing to sign into law, exasperating some of those present.
"There was no, even, hint as to where the president is going to come down," said one senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private meeting with Eric Ueland, the top White House legislative affairs aide, and other administration officials. "It's just a laundry list of things he's looking at, nothing that surprising."
Speaking to reporters afterward, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., confirmed Trump has yet to weigh in on the subject and scolded Democrats for pushing him to call up a House-passed background-checks bill that Trump has vowed to veto.
"They are working on coming up with a proposal that the president will sign," he said. "Until that happens, all of this is theatrics."
But Democrats, seeing firm political advantage in pushing for decisive action on gun violence, have not been shy about ramping up the pressure. Senate Democrats invited the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, Nan Whaley, to address their own lunch to discuss the Aug. 4 shooting in her city that left nine with fatal wounds in less than a minute. Outside the Capitol, Whaley and other leaders of cities touched by recent mass shootings - such as Pittsburgh and Annapolis, Maryland - rallied with gun-control advocates for congressional action.
The party's congressional leaders told their Republican counterparts that it was not acceptable to wait for Trump, who has constantly shifted his position on remedying gun violence, to decide what he wants.
"I'd say there's one word that describes Mitch McConnell's attitude on this vital issue of life and death, and that is: Duck," said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "He's afraid of this issue, but that's not what a leader should be doing."
In the Democratic-majority House, a committee advanced a trio of gun-control bills Tuesday, setting up floor votes on measures that go beyond the expansion of federal gun-buyer background checks that Democrats have focused on for years. The move reflects growing impatience in the party as they wait for Republicans to move forward on expanding background checks.
One measure would encourage states to set up "red flag" laws that would allow law enforcement agencies to ask a judge to remove weapons from people found to be a danger to themselves or others, while another, sponsored by Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., would institute a federal ban on ammunition magazines of more than 10 rounds. A third, from Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., would add misdemeanor hate crimes to the list of offenses making an individual ineligible to buy a gun. The House Judiciary Committee approved all three on straight party-line votes.
Asked about gun legislation Monday, Trump declined to say when he might roll out a proposal: "We are talking about a lot of different things. But at the same time, we have to protect our Second Amendment very strongly, and we will always do that."
A Republican aide said Trump could be presented with options on guns as soon as Wednesday but said there was no firm timeline for formally presenting a package to Congress. House Republicans are heading to Baltimore for their annual policy retreat Thursday, where they will hear directly from Trump. A House GOP aide said it is unknown whether Trump will use the speech to discuss his preferred response to the shootings.
Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., a co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said Trump would be well-served to "focus on the 'who' solutions, not the 'what' solutions" - meaning laws that focus on who can get guns, not what type of guns they can get.
Reed said he was as eager as everyone else on Capitol Hill to hear what Trump might propose: "I don't want to engage in politics and theater. I want to get something done, and so what will actually get signed into law is something we're very interested in knowing."
Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., who has previously worked with Democrats on gun legislation, told reporters he had spoken to Trump a half-dozen times about possible responses to the string of mass shootings with a focus on background checks.
Toomey crafted a background-check expansion proposal in 2013 with Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., in the months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., that ultimately failed to get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. That legislation did not go as far as the pending House-passed bill in covering a wider variety of gun transactions, and it's unclear if Trump will support something that goes as far as the 2013 language did.
"He's been asking thoughtful, reasonable questions all along the way and exhibiting to me a real interest in accomplishing something, but I don't think it was ever well-defined in terms of a policy prescription," Toomey said. "I think that's where he's trying to get to."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who spent much of Monday traveling with Trump to and from a North Carolina rally, said that he still sees "a pretty good chance" of combining legislation that would encourage states to adopt "red flag" laws with a background-checks bill that he described as a "modified" version of the Manchin-Toomey bill.
Toomey said some Republican senators are "rethinking" their prior votes against his legislation. "Support from the president is going to be essential," he said. "But with that support, I really think we could get to the 60 votes we need."
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The Washington Post's Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
This article was written by Mike DeBonis and Paul Kane, reporters for The Washington Post.