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Weapons Ban Renewal Subject to Jockeying

May 15, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Speaker Dennis Hastert opened the door Thursday to a vote on extending an assault weapons ban that expires next year, and the leader of House Democrats prodded President Bush to urge the Republican leadership to bring the bill to the floor.

``And I hope that he will work for its passage as well,″ said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Hastert, R-Ill., said he hadn’t yet decided whether the GOP-controlled House would vote on renewing the ban, which was approved in 1994 on 19 military-style automatic weapons. ``I need to have some discussions with the president and (Republican) leadership before I make that decision,″ he said.

Hastert made his comments after a statement earlier this week by Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, that the votes ``are not there″ in the House to extend the ban. DeLay’s spokesman, Stuart Roy, later said Republicans have no intention of calling the bill up for a vote.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has said the president supports an extension of the ban _ a position Bush took during his campaign for the White House. But Fleischer has sidestepped questions on whether Bush would put his prestige behind a campaign to renew the legislation.

The spokesman told reporters this week the White House is working with Congress on issues such as tax cuts and AIDS, and added, ``The president doesn’t set the congressional calendar or schedule. We’ll continue to work with the Congress, and they know the president’s position.″

The ban, opposed by the politically potent National Rifle Association, expires in September 2004, two months before the presidential and congressional elections.

Taken together, the remarks by Hastert, Pelosi and DeLay seemed to signal the re-emergence of gun control as a political issue after a two-year period of relative dormancy.

Historically, Democrats have been the chief advocates of gun control laws in Congress. But party strategists concluded the issue hurt them at the polls in 2000 in key states, and one officeholder said during the day that the party should exercise care.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who courted the NRA and persuaded the group to remain neutral during his successful election campaign in 2001, cautioned against ``ratcheting up the pressure″ in Congress on the issue.

Appearing at a meeting of the Democratic Leadership Conference, a centrist group, Warner said he has supported current restrictions on guns while promising not to back more. Thus, he supports the ban on assault weapons. But he said congressional Democrats risk looking anti-gun if they press Bush and the GOP-led Congress to pass an extension.

Hastert voted against the ban when it cleared the House in 1994 on a vote of 216-214, but told reporters at a news conference he was ``reserving my personal opinion″ in the event of another vote.

While they represent different parties and hold different views on the issue, neither Pelosi nor Hastert contradicted DeLay’s assertion that the votes are lacking in the House for a renewal of the gun control measure.

In the Senate, a spokesman for Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said no decision had been made about whether to have a vote on the issue.

The issue cuts across party lines. While Democrats generally lead the campaign for such measures, some suburban Republicans favor gun control, while Democrats from rural areas or those with active hunting populations oppose it, and the issue has worked to the detriment of Democrats nationally in recent elections.

The Democrats lost control of the House in the 1994 elections in a campaign in which the passage of the assault weapons ban played a role in the defeat of some lawmakers. More recently, Vice President Al Gore cast the tie-breaking vote as the Senate in 1999 passed legislation that included restrictions on sales at gun shows and a requirement for safety devices to be sold with guns.

Some party strategists later said it worked against Gore in his losing campaign for the White House in 2000.

Minority Democrats in recent years have placed an emphasis on capturing rural districts in the south and west, areas where candidates are not eager to be associated with efforts to pass gun control legislation.

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