How an assault weapons ban and impeachment are confounding House Democrats

Key Points
  • An assault weapons ban and impeachment are popular with the rank and file.
  • But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team must weigh more than public sentiment.
  • And those other factors have persuaded them to move cautiously on both fronts.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)
Erin Scott | Reuters

Is it worth it?

That's the question House Democrats keep asking themselves about two issues of growing relevance over the last few weeks.

One is pursuing a ban on assault weapons in the wake of mass murders in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas; the other is launching impeachment proceedings against President Trump.

Large chunks of the Democratic Party consider the answer on both matters obviously yes. Recent polling has shown that 8 in 10 Democrats favor an assault weapons ban, and that the party rank and file backs impeachment by a margin of 2 to 1.

Trump's impeachment would start with this man: Rep. Jerry Nadler

Within the House itself, Democrats voicing public support for impeachment proceedings now represent more than half the 235-member caucus. Nearly 200 of them have co-sponsored legislation to ban assault weapons.

But in her second stint as House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team weigh more than sentiment within the caucus and the public. And those other factors have persuaded them to move cautiously on both fronts, for similar reasons.

Failure is not an option

The first is the odds of substantive success — in the House and beyond.

On the assault weapons ban, the breadth of sponsorship and level of public backing suggest that Democrats and a few Republican dissidents could wrangle a 218-vote majority if Pelosi pressed the issue. Failure to do so would hand the National Rifle Association a major victory.

Even success on the House floor, however, would leave two immense obstacles Democrats consider insuperable this year and next.

No one in party leadership believes that either Trump or Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell – both close allies of the NRA – would permit an assault weapons ban to pass and become law.

House majorities often push legislation they consider doomed to fail anyway. The goal is sending a message about the party's priorities and generating political pressures on opponents heading toward the next election.

But Democratic leaders don't see their chances of gaining political advantage very high, either.

The trade-offs

The unpopularity among suburban voters of assault weapons points toward opportunities for turning up the heat on the 50 House Republicans who still represent suburban districts.

But Democrats still hold some 35 rural districts of their own, and Pelosi lived through the Democratic election wipeout that followed passage of the 1994 assault weapons ban.

Few doubt that enacting a ban into law depends on her party winning control of the Senate next year. And House passage of an assault weapons ban before the 2020 elections may not advance that goal.

Senate Democrats need to gain three seats for a majority. Their collection of prime targets includes such gun-friendly states as Alabama, North Carolina, Maine, Colorado, Iowa and Georgia.

Similar calculations shadow the emotional intraparty debate over impeachment. Democratic hostility to Trump has crested in the wake of the president's racist statements and the targeted mass shooting of Hispanics by a white supremacist in El Paso.

Yet 15 months before Election Day, Pelosi fears the worst-case scenario: a failed House impeachment vote that would let the president claim vindication even from his harshest critics. The fact that 31 House Democrats represent districts Trump carried in 2016 creates genuine doubt about the outcome.

Holding Trump accountable

Impeachment advocates insist that duty compels House Democrats to hold Trump accountable for misconduct. Hoping reticent colleagues will vote yes if forced to take a stand, they argue that House action alone would place the verdict on Trump's historical record that the Constitution demands.

Yet here, too, Pelosi sees a losing endgame. Prospects for a two-thirds Senate vote to convict and remove Trump from office appear just as bleak as passing an assault weapons ban. A Senate acquittal, like a failed House vote, would fuel Trump's claims of vindication as he campaigns for four more years.

On both fronts, Pelosi does not argue for doing nothing. Instead she has pushed for lesser measures in a play for time.

On guns, without ruling out an assault weapons ban, the speaker insists the Senate take up the stronger background checks for purchasers that House Democrats passed earlier this year. Near-unanimous public support from the rank and file of both parties makes that a potent political wedge.

On Trump, she backs continued investigation that might eventually result in impeachment. But every week of delay makes it less likely the House will take that step.

All of which leads to the answer, however disappointing to broad segments of her party, on whether seeking an assault weapons ban or Trump's impeachment is worth it.

As of midsummer 2019, the answer from Pelosi and other Democratic leaders is no.