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Sen. Pat Toomey On The Shutdown, Gun Control Legislation, Steel Tariffs


As the partial government shutdown continues, Congress remains at an impasse. The House of Representatives has passed bipartisan bills that would reopen the government, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to bring any of those bills to the floor. The Senate may vote on spending bills later this week, but at this point there’s no end to the shutdown in sight. To talk more about what’s happening in Washington, 90.5 WESA’s Lucy Perkins spoke with Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey.



This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On the partial government shutdown:

It’s very frustrating. But while there's plenty of blame to go around, I really think that the fundamental problem here has been the unwillingness of Speaker [of the House Nancy] Pelosi to engage in negotiations at all. It's always been clear to me that the President was open to negotiating the dollar amount. His initial position was $5.7 billion for physical border security.* Her position was zero and she won't negotiate – and that's not reasonable.


*Editor's note: In Trump's most recent proposal Sunday, he was still requesting $5.7 billion in funding for the wall.

On the Senate not voting on House bills to reopen the government: 

You know, Senator McConnell can make his decisions, he's the leader. We've got a bill that's going to be on the floor later this week, if the Democrats allow us to take it up – I hope they will. I think it should be open to amendment, and those amendments could change it dramatically. I would like to include my provision, for instance, that would preclude future shutdowns. The President may or may not agree with those things, but the Senate should work its will.

On passing gun control legislation: 

I'm a big believer in the Second Amendment. I'm a gun owner. I think the Second Amendment is a very, very important individual right. My view has always been that that is not in conflict with my equally strongly held view that it is reasonable for us to do background checks on purchases, certainly commercial gun sales, because some people in our society don't have the right to the Second Amendment. Specifically, violent criminals who have demonstrated they don't deserve to have that right, people who are dangerously mentally ill -- it is completely reasonable for us to prevent those people from having firearms. We need to have a mechanism for determining whether a person is in one of those two categories. The background check is the mechanism we've used, but there are loopholes, there are gaping holes in it ... [I]f there's commercial sales involved, there ought to be a background check. That's the legislation that I introduced with Sen. [Joe] Manchin [of West Virginia].

What are the prospects in 2019? The prospects have changed, perhaps, because the House has switched control. I'm not happy about the fact that the House has changed control. I'm a Republican, I prefer Republican control. But the silver lining in that cloud, from my point of view, is that now we have a House that can pass broader background-check legislation. I think they will do that. I think they will send it to the Senate, and if we can get a few more Republicans to take my view, which is that expanding background checks does not infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens, then maybe we've got a shot at doing something here.

On the impact of the Trump administration's steel tariffs:

I have a big stack on my desk of letters from Pennsylvania employers who have been very adversely affected by the tariffs. The President's tariffs help you if you're in the business of making steel, but if you're one of the far more people who are employed in a company that uses steel … that's a much much bigger industry in Pennsylvania and throughout America, and those folks are already being hurt. There is some danger that many of them will lose their jobs, so the adverse effect is absolutely happening.

The President's purpose in this was to pressure other countries – specifically Canada and Mexico – to negotiate a new trade agreement. Well, for better or for worse the Canadians and the Mexicans have done that, they've agreed to a new trade agreement and the administration was supposed to lift these tariffs when an agreement was reached. It has been reached and they still haven't lifted the tariffs. So it's frustrating to me, and it's harmful. It's simply a factual matter that a tariff is a tax on American consumers. The President likes to brag about how many billions of dollars are coming into the treasury. Well, they're all coming out of American wallets.

On Saudi Arabia and the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi:

I think [the Trump] administration didn't handle that situation well. Unfortunately, it's true, there are many regimes around the world that commit atrocities including murdering some of their own people including murdering their dissidents. That doesn't make it OK, and it certainly doesn't make it OKfor our allies. We do expect more from our allies, and certainly Saudi Arabia has been an ally.

I think there are a variety of ways we can send the message to the Saudi government that that is completely unacceptable – a temporary suspension of weapons sales, for instance, would be just one of many ways that we could convey that message. It's difficult, because there is a reason that we are allied with Saudi Arabia and it's because our two countries share common security interests. Saudi Arabia is the most significant counterweight to Iran in the Middle East and Iran is extremely hostile to the United States and our interests. But it's problematic when their government goes off the rails as they did in the case of the assassination of Khashoggi.

We need to strike the right balance. It is not the case that we should suddenly no longer consider … Saudi Arabia to be an ally, but it is the case that we need to send a very strong message to their leadership that that behavior was completely unacceptable.

Lucy Perkins is an editor and also reports on federal government and elections for the Government and Accountability team. Before joining the WESA newsroom, she was an NPR producer in Washington, D.C., working on news programs like All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. You can reach her at lperkins@wesa.fm.