House Republicans plan to let the current 10-year ban on assault weapons expire next year, even though the White House says President Bush would sign a renewal of the ban if Congress passed it.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Tex., told reporters Tuesday that "the votes in the House are not there" to extend the ban, which expires in September 2004. It's now expected that DeLay won't bring the bill up, allowing the ban to run out.
The ban, which covers the sales and importation of the AK-47 and 18 other kinds of automatic weapons, was passed by a Democratic-controlled Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1994. Those weapons will become legal again unless Congress votes to renew the legislation.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that if Congress passes it, Mr. Bush will sign an extension of the ban, but there are no plans for him to campaign for the bill, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller.
Democrats called on the president to take the lead in convincing his party to support renewal of the bill.
"If the bill dies we will lay it at the president's doorstep," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who sponsored the original 1994 bill, have introduced legislation to make the ban permanent and close a loophole that allows foreign companies to sell high-capacity ammunition magazines in this country.
Schumer said the gun bill would be an issue in the 2004 election, a development that could pose problems for Democrats who represent districts with strong gun rights sentiment. The assault ban vote was also a campaign topic in 1994, the year Republicans recaptured the House after spending 40 years in the minority.
Republicans in Congress say they'll vote for the ban only if Mr. Bush makes a public appeal for it.
"If the president demands we pass it, that would change the dynamics considerably," a House GOP aide told the Washington Post. "The White House does not want us" to vote.
Mr. Bush has received criticism from pro-gun groups and some Republican House members for his vocal support of the ban, especially during the 2000 presidential campaign.
Now, groups such as the Gun Owners of America seem to think Mr. Bush will let the ban expire without the House taking action, allowing him to be on the record supporting the ban while at the same time smoothing over relations with the pro-gun lobby.