Government & Politics

Blunt’s budget bill omits $50 million for gun violence study favored by Democrats

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) speaks as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) looks on during a news conference on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) speaks as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) looks on during a news conference on Capitol Hill. NYT

Senate Republicans are pursuing a federal health budget that omits funding for gun violence research, a proposal that Sen. Roy Blunt warns is too “controversial.”

The House passed a budget in July that would steer $25 million each to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to “better understand and prevent injury and death as a result of firearm violence.” It would be the first time Congress specifically designated money for this purpose since the 1990s.

Blunt, R-Missouri, chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees budgeting for health-related agencies. The proposed research funding was noticeably absent when the panel released its version of the bill Wednesday.

“It’s clearly controversial,” Blunt said in an interview last week.

The dispute over the proposed funding, a small portion of the overall federal budget, demonstrates the gap between the two parties as pressure mounts for Congress to act in the wake of a summer plagued by gun violence.

Rep. Sharice Davids, a freshman Democrat from Kansas, touted the funding in the House bill last month at a roundtable on gun violence in Overland Park.

“If we just run around passing laws that don’t get to the root of the problem, then we haven’t met our objective, which is to reduce the number of gun deaths in this country,” Davids told attendees.

“Congress has the power of the purse. We are working on trying to ensure those funds are available to study the problem, so we can use evidence-based solutions to what we’re seeing.”

Blunt has argued that specifically designating federal dollars for gun violence research is unnecessary because NIH already has the power to study the issue if it chooses. The Senate bill provides a $3 billion funding increase for NIH, a federal medical research agency.

“They are doing gun violence research now. They can do it if they decide they want to,” Blunt said Wednesday, adding that specifically designating funds for gun research “would create a problem for a number of members.”

Blunt’s son, former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, sits on the board of the National Rifle Association.

Blunt predicted that the research money will be a sticking point in budget negotiations, but he said the issue will be resolvable. He noted that it’s only a small fraction of the funding differences between the Senate and House versions of the budget bills.

The Senate bill proposes nearly $188 billion in discretionary funding for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Education. The House version provides more than $200 billion.

“The House bill is like $14 billion higher than last year. We’re never going to get there,” Blunt said.

The Senate fell nine votes short Wednesday afternoon of the 60 votes needed to move forward with Blunt’s bill and three other budget measures, which will delay the showdown between the two chambers for now.

House Democrats from Missouri and Kansas are adamant that the gun violence research funding should be included in the final version of the budget sent to the president’s desk.

“The idea that is controversial seems ridiculous to me,” Davids said when told of Blunt’s opposition.

“This is a public health crisis… I think a lot of us realize that if we’re going to address it, we need to study it,” she said.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, a St. Louis Democrat, called the research dollars an “essential piece of the puzzle in how we stop this unnecessary violence in this country,” but said he not spoken directly to Blunt on the issue.

“In our state of Missouri, we have the No. 1 murder capital in the nation in St. Louis. And we both represent St. Louis and we need to do everything humanly possible to avert this carnage, to stop it, to study it and to recommend to policymakers to what we can do to stem the rising tide of murders,” he said.

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The research funding is part of a broader effort by House Democrats to use their majority to place a focus on gun policy.

Earlier in the year, the House passed a bill to close loopholes by requiring background checks for guns sold at gun shows and between friends. The proposal has gotten little traction in the GOP-controlled Senate.

“It is lying on the desk of Mitch McConnell. Take a vote,” said Judy Sherry, head of the Kansas City-based group Grandparents Against Gun Violence. “Debate it. What are they afraid of?”

Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, argued on the Senate floor Wednesday that the House bill would not have prevented the mass shootings this summer in El Paso, Midland and Odessa.

“Is this about virtue signaling?” Cornyn said, noting that President Donald Trump has promised to veto the bill.

Despite their hesitance toward the Democratic bill, Trump’s administration and Republican senators have begun discussions about alternatives.

Attorney General William Barr traveled to Capitol Hill Tuesday to meet with Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, among other lawmakers, about possible gun legislation.

“No. 1, the proposal to get my support needs to actually keep guns out of the hands of criminals. No. 2, it needs to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and the mentally unstable. No. 3, it needs to protect the constitutional— it is a constitutional right of law abiding citizens,” Hawley said. “No. 4, it actually needs to work.”

Hawley said Barr presented him with the White House’s starting ideas that he is still in the process of evaluating.

“My question was is this something the president’s going to support… I don’t think there was an answer to that,” he said.

Hawley said that he’d be concerned about anything that would push the U.S. toward a national registry on guns.

Barr returned to Capitol Hill Wednesday for additional meetings with lawmakers.

“I’m up here just kicking around some ideas, getting perspectives, so I can be in a better position to advise the president. The president has made no decision yet,” Barr told reporters. “There are a number of different proposals being considered.”

The White House’s push for legislation comes as pressure is building—even in states with traditionally strong gun cultures—for some federal response to the violence.

Last month at a town hall in Topeka, Republican Rep. Steve Watkins faced an array of questions about his votes against the background check bill and a version of the Violence Against Women Act, which was opposed by the NRA because of strengthened restrictions on gun ownership for people convicted of stalking or domestic abuse.

“It was full of poison pills,” Watkins told an attendee who asked about his vote.

As Republicans contemplate a response that will satisfy moderate voters without alienating conservatives wary of new gun restrictions, House Democrats are pursuing of additional legislation to strengthen regulations at both the local and federal level.

Lacy Clay has introduced a bill that would give St. Louis and other cities more freedom to regulate guns, a measure intended to counteract the restrictions that Missouri and other states have placed on municipal governments seeking control at the local level.

Lacy Clay and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, are among the 212 Democrats to sign on as sponsors to a bill banning assault weapons.

Davids, one of a handful of Democrats who isn’t a sponsor, said she is open to an assault weapons ban but is still in the process of evaluating the bill.

The Kansas City Star’s Glenn Rice, Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman and McClatchy’s David Lightman contributed to this report.
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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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