WASHINGTON — Iowa’s congressional delegation is positioned to play a central role in the hottest topic at the Capitol — how to respond legislatively to the Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
The shootings that killed 20 children and six adults have brought a new era to Washington. After years in which the National Rifle Association held an all-powerful sway over gun control laws, now both Democrats and Republicans are talking openly about new laws, starting with reviving the 1994 ban on assault weapons.
And in a year in which it spent $17 million to influence federal elections, even the NRA was silent for several days after the shooting before announcing a news conference Friday in which it promised to make “meaningful contributions” to prevent future tragedies.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced that Vice President Joe Biden will lead an interagency commission to develop specific ideas no later than January.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, had called for just such a commission on Tuesday.
“This is not some Washington commission,” Obama said Wednesday. “This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside. This is a team that has a very specific task to pull together real reforms right now.”
Obama noted that recent polls show changing American sentiment toward gun laws, including bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips and requiring background checks.
Also Wednesday, Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his committee will play the most prominent role in crafting any legislation. A round of musical chairs in the Senate prompted by Monday’s death of Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye of Hawaii will put Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., in the Judiciary Committee chairmanship.
Another senior member of the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., announced this week she will push to revive the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004.
Grassley said he works well with Feinstein and that she is tweaking the legislation to avoid problems with the first version. The 1994 law banned 18 specific weapons as well as ammunition clips holding more than 10 bullets. Obama has said he supports Feinstein, whose legislation will come forward in January with the new Congress.
Grassley said reports from Washington that the gun control debate has changed dramatically after the Connecticut shootings are true.
“I think it has had an effect,” Grassley told reporters Wednesday, adding that calls from Iowans have streamed into his Washington office calling for a comprehensive reaction beyond simply tightening gun laws.
Specifically, Grassley made it clear that he wanted any legislation that emerges from the Senate to include the issue of mental health — which could put it squarely before Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Health Committee. Grassley said simply tightening gun laws won’t address the mentally ill population.
Harkin this week called for limits on high-capacity ammunition clips and a renewed focus on mental health services, pledging to lead the effort.
“In the coming days, I will take a closer look at how the federal government can ensure that people and communities who need help for mental health conditions have timely access to the services they require and that those suffering after this tragedy also have the resources they need to heal,” Harkin said.
Eastern Iowa’s two representatives said they will insist that the House do its part. Like Harkin and Grassley, Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, called for a “national conversation” that includes the issue of mental health.
“While there are no quick fixes, it is time for our country to have a national conversation about how to address the troubling frequency with which lives have been cut short by senseless violence,” Loebsack said. “I believe any conversation must look at ways to deal with military-style assault weapons and extended clips as well as mental health care.”
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, called the Connecticut shootings “a call to action for all of us,” and pledged to consider any ideas from constituents, colleagues, or experts. On Wednesday, he noted he has co-sponsored legislation to ban high-capacity ammunition clips.
“Real solutions can only be found if we put politics aside and work across ideological lines to cooperate, whether it’s on improving mental health care or finding a reasonable common ground on gun control. The victims of these terrible crimes deserve nothing less than our best efforts,” Braley said.