Joe Biden has played little direct role in negotiations over a possible deal on gun control, an indication of how a president who often boasted of his victories over the National Rifle Association and many years of Senate experience while campaigning is now staying away from day-to-day congressional motion on a number of the biggest problems with his presidency.
“He wants to offer it some space,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during Thursday’s press briefing, referring to the president’s approach to bipartisan talks within the Senate on gun control and college safety following a racist massacre at a Buffalo, Latest York, supermarket and the murders of 19 children in Uvalde, Texas.
The president himself, chatting with reporters on Friday morning in Delaware, made his role as a bystander to negotiations clear.
“My staff is dealing and have been dealing continuously with every member of the House and Senate who’s wanting to speak about guns,” he said. “It’s been a relentless interchange. And I’ve been continuously briefed.”
Biden’s absence from congressional discussions on key issues has occasionally frustrated and baffled advocates, who query his strategy of allowing Congress to find out the fate of even issues central to his political identity and standing.
“For somebody who talked a lot on the campaign trail about 30 years of experience in bringing Republicans and Democrats together, it’s striking that he has not been using those years of experience, relationships and skills to encourage lawmakers to get a deal,” Igor Volsky, the manager director of Guns Down America, told HuffPost. “This president doesn’t look like inclined to take a position real political capital to succeed in a deal.”
Biden’s allies, nonetheless, insist keeping the president a couple of steps away is crucial to offer senators in each parties the political freedom to chop a deal, and that Biden’s time and capital is best used to maintain Congress focused on a problem that may easily fade from the headlines.
“I support the bipartisan efforts that include a small group of Democrats and Republican senators trying to seek out a way,” Biden said during his speech Thursday night, which aired on every major broadcast network and drove substantial coverage. “But my God, the indisputable fact that nearly all of the Senate Republicans don’t want any of those proposals even to be debated or come up for a vote, I find unconscionable.”
The Senate talks, which have encouraged negotiators in each parties, are more likely to end in a final deal that falls far wanting what Biden has achieved previously ― a ban on assault weapons within the Nineties ― or what he specified by a Thursday-night speech calling for a number of gun control measures. Much of what Biden asked for in that speech, including a ban on assault weapons and the repeal of a liability shield for gunmakers, is off the table resulting from unified Republican opposition.
Biden’s hands-off approach to congressional motion isn’t limited to gun control. The president has largely removed himself from negotiations over a reconciliation package that may grow to be his signature policy achievement if it passes, leaving its fate within the hands of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). And Biden and the White House will not be deeply involved in major antitrust laws developed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the party’s lead negotiator on the gun control laws, told CNN he approved of the president’s approach: “They know we’d like our space ― so we’re in regular touch with the White House, but they know that this ultimately needs to be a deal within the Senate.”
On the campaign trail, Biden portrayed himself as uniquely positioned to succeed in bipartisan deals with Republicans. Breaking from most other leading contenders for the Democratic nomination, he defended the Senate’s 60-vote requirement, and said his 36 years within the Senate meant he alone could bring the parties together on major issues.
Repeatedly, in television ads and in stump speeches, Biden cited the passage of the assault weapons ban in 1994 as evidence of his bona fides, an example of persuading key Republicans to defeat a liberal nemesis in the shape of the gun lobby.
“As president, he’ll beat the NRA again and restore the soul of this nation,” a narrator promised in a Biden campaign ad that aired ahead of Nevada caucuses, the outcomes of which provided the primary glimmer of hope for the previous vice chairman’s eventual comeback within the presidential primaries.
Earlier in his time in office, Biden commonly took meetings with lawmakers in each parties as he tried to craft major laws. Most of those efforts proved fruitless: Work with moderate Republicans, including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, to craft a bipartisan version of the American Rescue Plan went nowhere. Biden’s attempts to barter a version of the bipartisan infrastructure law with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) also fell short, even when a gaggle of moderate senators later reached a deal.
Most notably, Biden continuously met with nearly every stripe of Democrat while attempting to barter his Construct Back Higher package, which Manchin ultimately knifed in December. Some Biden allies imagine the ultra-public nature of those negotiations ― Manchin was continuously bombarded with questions within the halls of the Senate ― made a deal tougher to succeed in.
The politically fraught nature of those negotiations only adds to the challenges. Friday’s decision from Rep. Chris Jacobs (R-N.Y.) to retire just every week after endorsing a ban on assault weapons shows how Republican base voters, egged on by the gun lobby, will revolt against anything they see as restricting Second Amendment rights.
Biden’s direct involvement could only further polarize the difficulty, adding to the political risk for GOP senators involved within the talks, including Collins, John Cornyn of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. (All three were just reelected in 2020.)
Public surveys proceed to point out stricter gun laws, especially the forms of strengthened background checks and red flag laws under discussion, are popular with the general public. That’s led some advocates, including Volsky, to suggest Biden should begin traveling to place pressure on critical senators.
“On the very least, what the White House should consider is traveling to those parts of the country and meeting with affected populations to construct support and create political pressure on those lawmakers to vote the fitting way,” Volsky said. “That is the bare minimum that we’d expect on any issue.”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.