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Uncertainty about voter demands, impact of new laws has Congress in inertia over gun violence

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It could be a tornado. A hurricane. An act of terrorism in Belgium or Paris.

And without fail, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis — and Ryan’s predecessor, House Speaker John Boehner —  would walk into their weekly press conference on Thursday or Friday morning and offer condolences. Typically speaking from a script, each would strike a somber tone. Extend prayers. Try to offer some hope.

Then it would be on to other subjects. The debt limit. Immigration. A government shutdown. Tax policy. Obamacare. President Trump’s latest tweet. You name it.

Pelosi’s press conference last Thursday appeared headed for the same direction. Murder and hell consumed a high school campus in Parkland, Florida, the day before. Most reporters in the House Radio/TV Gallery Studio suspected Pelosi would mirror her approach after other catastrophes. Some comments about the tragedy. More than likely questions about gun control and the 2016 House sit-in on firearms. Then there would be inquiries about the Senate immigration debate and the memo by Democrats on the House intelligence committee.

But everyone knew it would be a little different when Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., appeared.

In late 2012, Pelosi tapped Thompson to head the Democrats gun violence task force just after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. Thompson knows something about guns. He’s a Vietnam veteran, a hunter and used to co-chair the Congressional Sportsman Caucus.

Thompson entered the room before Pelosi and briefly took a seat in the front row amid the reporters.

“Think I can get the first question?” he asked me, half-seriously.

Yes, there was much to be asked about DACA, the president’s budget, the Russia investigation and North Korea’s role in the Winter Olympics. But this wasn’t going to be a “one-and-out” event in Pelosi would speak about the calamity in Florida and shifted to other subjects.

Thompson’s presence meant one thing. This press conference was going to be about guns.

“Children are dying in our schools, in our communities, on our streets,” Pelosi said. “All this Congress has to say is, ‘Let’s have a moment of silence.’ So I sadly yield, with great gratitude, to Mr. Thompson and thank him for his leadership on this very important issue.”

In fact, Pelosi deflected most questions to her lieutenant. Thompson proceeded to upbraid Republicans for rarely entertaining gun safety measures in Congress.

“Every time we went to them, they had some excuse, some cockamamie excuse,” Thompson fumed.

He wound up fielding the first question. Congress approved a 10-year ban on assault weapons as a part of the 1994 crime bill. Lawmakers failed to re-up the assault the weapons prohibition when it sunset a decade later. So the question was does the sheer volume of assault weapons now floating around contribute to the latest spate of mass shootings?

“The issue of assault weapons is an issue that is much thornier to deal with. It is a harder hurdle. We can’t even get a hearing on the background check bill, so the idea that we would be able to do something on assault weapons, goes beyond a heavy lift,” Thompson replied.

To be fair, “assault weapon” can be a misleading term. Such arms are malleable and can be modified by any gun enthusiast. Some mass assassins don’t always deploy assault rifles to execute people. The gunman in the 2007 Virginia Tech slaughter used semi-automatic handguns. The “Rambo” aesthetic of some firearms doesn’t always reflect the capacity of the weapon. Cosmetic alterations to some guns can drastically shroud their killing power.

The push to restrict assault weapons hit Capitol Hill after a staggering 34 children and teacher were wounded at a 1989 Stockton, Calif., school with an AK-47. A 1991 mass shooting at a Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, built support in Congress for the assault weapons ban.

But it’s unclear if the 2004 sunset clause is to blame for what’s going on now. And, a bigger question, is would legislation curb such tragedies?

Gun control advocates religiously cite a parade of polls revealing a supermajority of Americans who favor weapon restrictions.

Here’s the problem: very few of those supporters are single-issue voters when it comes to firearms. The issue definitely doesn’t drive people to the polls. If that were the case, gun control voters would have been legion after Columbine/VirginiaTech/Newtown/San Bernardino/Orlando. Polls demonstrating people supporting gun control initiatives after a mass shooting is akin to “liking” something on Facebook or Twitter. Someone may “like” the idea at the time, but it doesn’t sway their vote.

At least not yet.

Crazed gunmen have shot two members of the House of Representatives in the past seven years and wounded multiple congressional aides. If Congress decided from within to alter gun policy, that would have happened a long time ago. And so far, change hasn’t happened from the outside either.

That said, some congressional Republicans privately concede they’re increasingly uncomfortable with their party rarely addressing the firearms issue outside of a moment of silence on the House or Senate floor. There’s concern that mass casualty events could turn against the GOP. A few Republicans say they’re worried about the general silence of their party on the issue.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., had something to say about that after the Orlando shooting during his 15-hour floor speech in 2016.

“I really do worry that there is a quiet, unintentional message of endorsement that’s sent when we do nothing or when all we do is talk,” he said. “I think when there is not a collective condemnation with policy change from what is supposedly the world’s greatest deliberative body that there are very quiet cues that are picked up by people who are contemplating the unthinkable in their mind.”

Pelosi at last week’s presser cited how Ryan addressed gun violence after the Orlando shooting and following the Democratic sit-in on the House floor.

“The action taken by our Republican colleagues and leadership was to investigate who on the floor Periscoped, Facebooked, whatever technology they used, what was happening on the floor to the public,” she said.

Three of the mass shootings in less than two years unfolded in political battleground states: Nevada, off the Vegas Strip, and two in Florida, the Pulse nightclub massacre and now at the Parkland, Florida, high school. It’s possible mass casualty events could eventually impact voters in those areas.

Consider the way the Connecticut congressional delegation views firearms since Sandy Hook.

But will the issue get people to the polls now?

“Whose political survival is important than the safety of our children?” Pelosi asked. “I would rather pass gun safety legislation than win the election.”

Yet nobody knows if bills or laws would help.

Schools spend profusely on fire safety. They conduct regular fire drills. There are sprinkler and fire suppression systems. Fire alarms are placed throughout the buildings. Escape routes are clearly posted. This phenomena suggests that “gun control” may not be the best way to protect people from violence — either at school or at a nightclub. Perhaps another method could help protect people without touching off a fracas over the Second Amendment.

Either way, nothing is working. Congress certainly hasn’t acted on the issue because voters haven’t compelled them.

So at some point, in the not too distant future, there will be yet another press conference. Pelosi will take the lectern, speaking in grim terms. And like a sentinel, Mike Thompson will appear.

The sad reality is that everyone will know they’re discussing yet another tragic shooting in America.

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The Biden administration says it will evacuate Afghans who worked with U.S. troops

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration plans to evacuate at least some of the Afghans who worked with the U.S. military and who face the threat of retribution from the Taliban before the U.S. withdrawal’s official completion date of Sept. 11, senior administration officials said Thursday.

The White House had previously declined to endorse the idea but President Joe Biden gave the green light to evacuation plans on Thursday, telling reporters, “Those who helped us are not going to be left behind.”

The decision follows an internal debate and urgent appeals in recent weeks from lawmakers from both parties, veterans of the war in Afghanistan, the Afghans who risked their lives to support U.S. soldiers, and from diplomats in America’s longest war.

Asked about the fate of Afghans who worked as interpreters or in other jobs, Biden said: “We’ve already begun the process” of helping the Afghan partners.

Asked which country they would be relocated to, the president said he didn’t know and mentioned he would be meeting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House on Friday.

An unspecified number of Afghans who worked as interpreters for the U.S. government and who applied for a visa will be moved to a third country, where their paperwork will be reviewed, senior administration officials said.

It remained unclear how many Afghans would be evacuated, which third country would accept them and when the operation would begin.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby indicated the relocation might involve civilian aircraft and not military planes. An evacuation of 6,600 Iraqi Kurds to Guam in 1996-97 also used chartered, civilian planes.

To help Afghans facing threats from the Taliban due to their work for U.S. forces, Congress created the special immigrant visa program. But the SIV program has been hampered by bureaucratic delays and advocates say Afghan partners are in grave danger from the Taliban while they wait for their applications to be processed.

“Although we have surged resources and sped up SIV processing times significantly, we recognize that some of these interpreters and translators have been in the process, in some cases for years, and are still waiting to receive their visas,” a senior administration official said.

“We have identified a group of SIV applicants who have served as interpreters and translators to be relocated to another location outside of Afghanistan before we complete our military drawdown by September, in order to complete the visa application process,” the official said.

The U.S. withdrawal is likely to be effectively complete next month, according to officials.

State Department Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter said the evacuees would come from the 18,000 Afghans already in the Special Immigrant Visa pipeline. She declined to say which countries they would be evacuated to but said the relocation would be done in “full compliance with all applicable laws, as well as in full coordination with Congress.”

The administration is identifying Afghans who worked with the U.S. government to be relocated to a third country to allow the Afghans to “safely complete” the remainder of the visa application process, she said.

The senior administration official left open the possibility that evacuations might have to be expanded. “We are planning for all contingencies, so that we are prepared for all scenarios. Should it become necessary, we will consider additional relocation or evacuation options,” the official said.

Lawmakers, veterans groups and rights organizations welcomed the announcement.

Chris Purdy, project manager of the Veterans for American Ideals program at Human Rights First, said the Biden administration should fly the Afghans to the U.S. territory of Guam, where the governor already has said the Afghans would be welcome.

“This is America’s responsibility, we don’t need to outsource to another country,” he said.

Purdy added that the administration should “release their plan to ensure that we get as many people out as possible.”

Congressional aides from both parties said the White House had informed lawmakers of the decision to proceed with an evacuation and that some officials in the administration favored flying the Afghan partners to Guam.

Visa applicants in Guam would be accorded more rights than in a third country, and it would be more difficult to deport them back to Afghanistan from U.S. territory, rights advocates said.

Advocates have accused the Biden administration of moving far too slowly to protect the tens of thousands of Afghans whose lives are in mortal danger because of their association with the U.S. and Western organizations.

Veterans and refugee organizations said they have been inundated with pleas for help from former interpreters.

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Pelosi announces select committee to investigate Jan. 6 Capitol riot

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Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Thursday that the House will establish a select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

“This morning, with great solemnity and sadness, I am announcing the House will be establishing a select committee on the January 6th insurrection,” Pelosi said at a news conference.

Last month, Senate Republicans blocked House-passed legislation to establish a bipartisan commission to probe the attack. That legislation failed a key procedural hurdle after 54 senators voted in favor of it, short of the needed 60 votes.

That bill passed the House last month by a 252-175 vote, with 35 Republicans voting in favor of it. It was the product of negotiations between House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., the ranking member of the committee.

While Democrats have long pushed for an investigation akin to the 9/11 commission, many Republicans have argued it would become an overly political process that could damage them in next year’s elections without information that goes beyond what inquiries by federal law enforcement will uncover.

On Thursday, Pelosi, D-Calif., said there is no timeline for the committee to release findings and she is not yet announcing its composition or leadership.

“January 6th was one of the darkest days in our nation’s history,” Pelosi said. “It is imperative that we establish the truth of that day and ensure an attack of that kind cannot happen, and that we root out the causes of it all. The select committee will investigate and report on the facts and the causes of the attack” and report recommendations.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., signaled this month that he would seek to “force the Senate to vote” again on the commission.

Pelosi said Thursday she sees the establishment of this committee “as complementary, not instead of” the bipartisan commission passed in the House, adding she is hopeful that that still comes to pass.

“The select committee is about our democracy, and about ensuring that the Capitol dome remains a symbol of freedom, about preserving America’s role as an emblem of resilience, determination and hope,” Pelosi said. “That is our purpose. That is what the select committee will be about, and that is about seeking and finding the truth.”

“It is clear that the Republicans are afraid of the truth,” she added.

Olivia Olander contributed.

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Take that, Nicola! Sturgeon independence dream crushed by Sunak – proves Scotland needs UK

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NICOLA STURGEON’S Scottish independence dream has been crushed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who has perfectly highlighted how badly the country has relied on the UK during the Covid pandemic.

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