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Key Republican deals a blow to House Democrats’ new push for tougher gun laws

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania voted for an assault weapons ban and stricter background checks last year. But he rejects Democratic attempts to end-run McCarthy and force votes.
Image: Brian Fitzpatrick, Ban Russian Energy Imports Act News Conference
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., speaks at the Capitol in March 2022.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — A rare House Republican who supports stricter gun measures said he won’t back a Democratic effort to end-run Speaker Kevin McCarthy and force a vote on a trio of bills to implement those restrictions.

“At some point we need to start thinking about getting things done rather than sending messages across the floor of the House,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., said in an interview Thursday.

“It’s a very intellectually dishonest way of proceeding when you don’t have any strategy" to pass the bills through the Senate, he said.

A trio of Democrats — Reps. Lucy McBath of Georgia, James Clyburn of South Carolina and Mike Thompson of California — is pushing discharge petitions to try to force votes on a bill to ban so-called assault weapons and two bills to impose tougher background checks for gun sales. The tactic requires signatures from a majority of the House to force floor votes against the wishes of GOP leaders in charge.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., unveiled the strategy to try to go around McCarthy, R-Calif., at a Democratic meeting this week, two sources said.

Fitzpatrick was one of Democrats’ few, if only, natural allies to get a majority of the House to support the move. His opposition deals a major blow to the push, which will require at least a half-dozen House Republicans to sign the discharge petition to force a vote.

Fitzpatrick is the author of one of the measures, along with Thompson, to require background checks for nearly all private gun transfers. Last year, he was one of two Republicans who voted with Democrats to pass an assault weapons ban. The other, Rep. Chris Jacobs, R-N.Y., has retired. He was also one of eight Republicans who voted for stricter background checks. (Both bills died in the Senate because of overwhelming Republican opposition.)

Fitzpatrick said he is focusing instead on building broader support for his bill with Thompson. He re-introduced it in February, though he admitted he’s having limited success.

“It’s hard. It’s a sensitive issue for a lot of people, obviously,” he said.

Democrats sought to use a discharge petition this year to force Republicans to hold a vote on a clean debt ceiling increase but never got any Republicans to sign on. Still, they’re making another attempt to put swing-district Republicans in a tough position.

“I don’t appreciate tactics like this,” said Fitzpatrick, one of 18 House Republicans who represent districts President Joe Biden won in 2020. “Every single time we pass this bill, everyone’s like: 'Our work's done.' It’s not done. If you actually care about getting it done, go over there and figure out how to get 60 votes.”

Democrats control the Senate by 51 to 49. It requires 60 votes to break a filibuster on gun legislation, and GOP senators say their members oppose tougher firearm laws.

House Republicans haven’t put forward any legislation to address the continued rise in mass shootings this year. 

A House Democratic leadership aide noted that more than 200 members have signed the petitions and hit back at Republicans who say they favor the measures but won't sign on.

"They can’t have their cake and eat it, too. If House Republicans say they support the bills, they should want them coming to the floor by any means necessary," the leadership aide said. "Presumably, if a lead sponsor does not support bringing their bill to the floor by a discharge petition, they have gotten a markup scheduled. I look forward to hearing when that will be."

The strategy to pursue a discharge petition for the gun bills has sparked dissent among some in the House Democratic conference.

It made sense “under very specific conditions” on the debt limit with a deadline nearing, a frustrated senior House Democratic aide said. “Trying to replicate that with other issues is a mistake,” the aide said.

One problem for Democrats is that not all of their members are on board with pursuing the petition for an assault weapons ban, which mitigates at least some pressure for Republicans to sign on.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, a centrist, said Thursday he will sign the petitions for the two background check bills but “probably” won’t sign on to the assault weapons ban.

Asked whether the discharge petition was the correct approach given the lack of Democratic consensus, Cuellar responded: “I can’t speak on that. I’m just giving you my position.”