CAPITOL HILL —
Moments of silence rarely become moments of conflict.
As Congress returned from a weekend break, however, to the sickening news of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, common rallying points — moments of silence, classified briefings — instead became opportunities for partisan bickering and dysfunction over gun control legislation.
“Pass the bills,” some House Democrats chanted on the House floor Monday night, following a moment of silence in honor of the victims in Orlando.
On the Senate side of the Capitol Tuesday, the Republican majority leader said he would oppose measures proposed by Democrats but seemed to leave the door open to some change.
"Nobody wants terrorists to have firearms," said Senator Mitch McConnell. "We’re open to serious suggestions from the experts as to what we might be able to do to be helpful."
Back on the House side, during a sometimes rowdy session late Monday, other members fled the floor to avoid discussion of three pieces of legislation that House Democrats say would help prevent future attacks, including strengthening background checks and preventing individuals on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns.
Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, asked for the opportunity to speak following the moment of silence observed by all members for the victims in Orlando.
FILE - U.S. Rep. James Clyburn speaks in Columbia, S.C.
Seeking a vote
Clyburn, who knew some of the victims of last year's Charleston church shooting personally, told reporters immediately after he wanted to ask the Republican leadership if gun control legislation could be brought up for a vote.
His effort reflected an increasing reluctance on the part of House Democrats to treat the death of 49 people in an Orlando nightclub as yet another addition to the list of mass shootings in the United States.
“Some Republicans are trying to make this into a national security threat. It’s a domestic threat here, it’s an act of terror, it’s an act of hatred,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who stood with Clyburn briefing reporters. “We prayerfully participate in the moment of silence, but that again is no license to be absent when it comes to taking up the bill.”
Clyburn’s request followed a blistering attack on the House floor Monday from Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat from Connecticut, who criticized his colleagues for hypocritically observing moments of silence following mass shootings in the U.S.
"I will no longer stand here absorbing the faux concern, contrived gravity and tepid smugness of a House complicit in weekly bloodshed," Himes said of the planned moment of silence. "Sooner or later the country will hold us accountable for our inaction.”
Law enforcement officials in front of Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, June 15, 2016. (Photo: S. Dizayee / VOA )
He said the moments of silence were a cover for Congressional inability to react to "bloody tragedy."
House Democrat Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters in a briefing Tuesday morning that moments of silence should be followed by action.
“We believe it appropriate that these words and moments of silence would be followed by legislation, certainly to enhance background checks, to close loopholes, that if you're on the no-fly list, you can't buy guns — no fly, no buy — weapons, which are sold freely, which have the capacity to kill large numbers of people very quickly. ... We cannot and must not remain silent," said Hoyer, of Maryland.
He acknowledged the possibility that House Democrats could bring gun control legislation up for a vote by adding amendments to spending bills, but he said it had not yet been decided.
That could be a difficult process, though, following last month’s Congressional battle over several spending bills. Their passage is endangered by the addition of amendments and counter-amendments involving rights for LGBT federal contractors.
The fight prompted House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to move away from an open-rule process that allows members to introduce amendments that can endanger bills.
FILE - Rep. Peter King (R- NY) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill.
'Not going to pass now'
Rep. Peter King, a Republican from New York, told VOA on Monday he did not think his bill preventing individuals on the terror watch list from purchasing guns could be revived, even in the wake of the Orlando shooting.
"No. I put the bill in. I support it. But the fact of the matter is it's not going to pass now,” King said.
Divisions over gun control only continued Tuesday as House members received a classified security briefing from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
“A members’ briefing that immediately turns to questions of partisanship is unfortunate,” said Rep. David Jolly, a Republican from Florida, who said he left the briefing because of the tone.
People leave flowers and other items at a makeshift vigil outside the Orlando Regional Medical Center, which is close to where the mass shooting occurred at the Pulse gay nightclub early Sunday in Orlando, Florida, June 14, 2016.
“This is a week that we are one nation, mourning together, and if we can’t arrive at a consensus together and reject this Democrat, Republican divide, we all lose,” Jolly said.
Other Republicans said the gun control issue distracted from the real problems revealed by the Orlando attack, showing the influence of ISIS and the need to confront the threat from “radical Islam.”
“This president has essentially made an act of terrorism about gun control,” said Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona. “I find it despicable that the President wants to use a terrorist act to promote his agenda on a completely different issue.”
The Orlando attack prompted Senate Republicans to demand a stepped-up campaign to defeat the Islamic State group, the group to which shooter Omar Mateen pledged allegiance during his rampage at the Pulse nightclub.
“It’s no longer an open question whether the followers of ISIL and other Islamic terrorist groups will attempt to strike us here in the West — they have,” said Senate Majority Leader McConnell of Kentucky. “And they are going to continue to do so. We need to do what we can to fight back so we can prevent more of these atrocities.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are joining forces with their House colleagues to revive long-stalled legislation restricting gun sales and introduce new ones.
As in the House, Senate Democrats want to ban those on the FBI’s terror watch list from purchasing firearms, a proposal Republicans blocked late last year. In addition, Democrat Bob Casey of Pennsylvania wants to bar those convicted of hate crimes from buying a gun.
“I think we should make a determined effort to take steps to reduce the likelihood that these kinds of [mass-shooting] incidents will occur, and that means taking action,” Casey told VOA. “It doesn’t mean just giving speeches.
FILE -- Three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle are displayed in Sacramento, Calif.
Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who spent much of Sunday in Orlando after the attack, is among many Democrats who want to go a step further and reinstate a federal ban on assault weapons.
“I’m a hunter. I grew up on a ranch. I have always had guns,” Nelson told VOA. “But my guns are for hunting, not for killing [people]. These are military assault weapons, and personally I believe that they should not be allowed [to be sold].”
But Nelson expressed skepticism that the Republican-led Congress will enact any gun control measures.
“I think there is plenty of evidence from past behavior — the past is prologue — that we are going to see more gridlock,” he said. “And that’s the exact opposite of what this nation needs, a nation that is grieving. What we need is unity, coming together instead of division.”
Republicans insist their objection to gun laws is grounded in hard facts.
“If gun control could protect the country from radical Islam, there would be no attacks in Paris or Brussels,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “We’re not one-gun control measure away from destroying radical Islam. Our current policies are not working.”