House Dems focus on assault weapons ban after policing deal sparks drama

The chamber is now set to take a momentous, if largely symbolic, vote after an attempted agreement on police accountability fell flat.


House Democrats will vote Friday on a historic bill to ban so-called assault weapons in response to a spate of mass shootings this year — a sudden strategy shift after party leaders failed to land the votes for a broader slate of public safety bills also slated for floor action.

The assault weapons vote, a huge party priority, will mark the first time in nearly three decades that lawmakers attempt to reinstate the long-expired ban on semiautomatic firearms. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who announced the decision Friday morning, called it a “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 — stings 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, fell flat with 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.

That pushback emerged even as 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.

“There was no failure here today,” Beatty said, recounting her efforts to reach a deal but also listen to her members. “Part one, or step one, of the package [will be] voted on today. And then we will come back and look at the remainder of the package.”

Even after a frenetic bout of arm-twisting Friday morning, Democrats remained short of the votes needed for the policing package. Ultimately, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team made a decision to vote on the assault weapons ban separately — decoupling it from the contentious policing bills — to satisfy a large chunk of their party eager to vote before August.

Progressives were quick to cheer the move.

“This is what the families are asking for,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). “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, the gun vote also won’t be easy for Democrats: Several of their own members, largely from rural districts, have vowed to oppose reinstating the assault weapons ban. But senior lawmakers and aides feel confident they will have the votes Friday, in part because of multiple GOP absences.

House Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) praised Democratic leadership’s decision to focus solely on the assault weapons ban Friday: “Families who have lost love ones have been calling and saying, ‘You got to do this.’ We owe it to them. The idea that you know that we would push this off to another day, I think everybody was feeling would just not be appropriate.”

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, according to multiple people familiar with the situation.

Party leaders had already abandoned plans to pass the policing bills earlier this week, with progressives, the Black Caucus and moderates divided on various pieces of the far-reaching package. But the 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 health-taxes-and-climate bill.

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. (Only a pair of the measures had any interest from Senate Republicans).

For vulnerable moderate 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.

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. While they wanted to vote on the gun measure, they criticized party leaders for bundling it together with the other bills, according to multiple people familiar with the situation.

Several others expressed concern about being rushed into an agreement without time to consult and deliberate further, including during Friday morning’s Black Caucus meeting.

Pelosi said in a letter to members that negotiations would continue on the policing package: “House Democrats are committed to building safer communities, in every corner of the country … Work continues on this essential legislation, and we plan to bring this legislation to the Floor — increasing safety with accountability.”

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.

“Many of these proposals substantially increase investments in law enforcement that have historically been used to increase policing and incarceration of Black and Brown people, yet do not include correspondingly rigorous accountability and oversight provisions to ensure that law enforcement is using these funds in accordance with the law and the Constitution,” Leadership Council President and CEO Maya Wiley and executive vice president of government affairs Jesselyn McCurdy wrote to congressional leaders in a letter obtained by POLITICO.

Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.