Congress

Trump closes in on background check decision, key senators say

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., and two other senators spoke to Trump about a deal on background checks for gun sales. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump may soon announce whether he will support a yet-to-be-written Senate bill expanding background checks for commercial gun sales, a bipartisan group of senators said Wednesday.

Trump spoke for about 45 minutes by phone with the trio of members at the center of background check talks. Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., and Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., told reporters the president discussed options for securing a potential deal.

Murphy, who in late August described the chances of passing meaningful gun control legislation as “less than 50-50,” placed similar odds after the call. He acknowledged he still has reservations about trusting the president, who has retreated from previous commitments to tackling gun violence. “It sounds like they're going to try to have some answer for us as to whether they can come to the table on background checks in the next 24-48 hours. Maybe that timeline will slip,” Murphy said. But he added: “I do think we're getting to the witching hour."

Manchin and Toomey said they focused their discussions on increasing background checks for commercial sales, saying going further would be unacceptable to many Republicans.

Trump was “very engaged, personally asking thoughtful questions, asking reasonable questions” throughout the call, Toomey said.

A preliminary deal

Toomey cautioned that while the discussion was productive, the president did not back any one bill.

"But he did strongly convey an interest in doing something meaningful, and something that we would, we would be able to embrace and that could pass," he said.

Such agreements have fallen apart in the past. A 2013 Manchin-Toomey proposal, which would have required background checks on all commercial sales of guns, fell five votes short in the Senate. But Murphy sees Toomey as a key ally on the issue in the Senate, as well as in conversations with the White House.

However, a deal has yet to coalesce into solid policy commitments on either side. Even the trio of lawmakers have not settled on a package. Manchin characterized their agreement as a commitment to support the same package in the end.

All three said any potential deal may lose members on both sides of the aisle.

“Listen, I end up agreeing to something that's not universal background checks, that's going to be the heavy lift on the Democratic side, just as any movement on background [checks], which might be a heavy lift on the Republican side,” Murphy said.

House leadership and Senate Democrats have pushed for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to hold a vote on two House-passed universal background check bills, but the Kentucky Republican has deferred to Trump.

Senate Republicans have been wary of supporting almost anything without knowing where the president stands. The volatility of the president’s position and his strategy of hitting back, hard, when Republicans take stances that oppose his also has been a challenge in finding compromise among lawmakers.

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