Bernie's Big Day in D.C.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a media gaggle in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 26. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had a big, but mixed day in Washington Wednesday, meeting one-on-one with President Barack Obama at the White House, but also getting blasted by another key Democrat, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who criticized the presidential hopeful’s health care plan as unrealistic.

Just days before the crucial Iowa caucuses, Sanders also got a chance to reversee a previous stand on gun legislation, as Democrats on Capitol Hill pushed to roll back a 2005 law that protects firearms manufacturers from liability when their guns are used to commit crimes.

The Vermont senator, who was here on a break from barnstorming through Iowa, where polls say he is a dead heat with Hillary Clinton, took center stage in Washington.

Sanders described the private, nearly hour-long meeting with the president as “productive and constructive,” saying it covered foreign and domestic matters — and “occasionally a little bit of politics.” Asked if he solicited Obama’s endorsement, Sanders replied: “No. Of course not.”

Minutes after Sanders left the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest labeled the rare meeting an “important opportunity for the two men to talk about their shared commitment to the policies and values they have in common.”

“I think there is value in those kinds of conversations,” Earnest told reporters. “And, I would suspect, this won’t be the last one.”

In Baltimore, however, where House Democrats were gathered in a display of unity, Pelosi suggested Sanders doesn’t share their vision.

Pelosi zeroed in on Sanders’ calls for a single-payer health care system, and made clear she believes someone else should be the Democratic nominee.

Pelosi has not formally endorsed in the presidential race, though she has often hinted that she supports Clinton, including in a recent interview with Roll Call.

At Wednesday’s news conference she said she was proud of all three Democratic presidential candidates — Clinton, Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — but added that she does not expect Sanders to prevail: “The fact is that Bernie Sanders is enlarging the universe of people paying attention to the election, and we hope that he will bring them to the polls in November to support the Democratic nominee.”

On Capitol Hill, a renewed bid to overturn the law shielding firearm dealers and manufacturers from liability gave Sanders a chance to reverse himself. Sanders’ congressional voting record on gun-related legislation has dogged him on the presidential campaign trail.

Pushed by Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the proposed gun measure hands Sanders an actual bill to support as he alters course on how much protection gun-makers should receive. In a statement released on Jan. 23, Sanders said he is “pleased that this legislation is being introduced.”

“As I have said for many months now, we need to look at the underlying law and tighten it up,” he added. On Thursday, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence announced has agreed to co-sponsor the legislation.

Sanders previously had supported the legal protections for firearms manufacturers, but said during a Jan. 17 Democratic debate he would “re-look” at the issue. Clinton pounced immediately during that debate, saying: “I am pleased to hear that Sen. Sanders has reversed his position on immunity.”

While the self-described Democratic Socialist is to the political left of Clinton on most issues, she has accused him of being in the pocket of firearms manufacturers. His record on gun-related legislation is both mixed and hotly debated, and it could help determine who is the party’s presidential nominee.

Democracy for America, a grass-roots focused organization launched by former DNC Chairman and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, calls Clinton’s accusations “misleading” and “bald-faced lies.”

“Anyone who has listened to a single word that Bernie Sanders has said over the last 30-plus years or seen the lifetime ‘D-’ rating he’s earned from the NRA knows that any suggestion that he’s a ‘reliable vote’ for some industry lobby simply doesn’t pass the laugh test,” said DFA Executive Director Charles Chamberlain.

Sarah Trumble of the Third Way think tank calls the independent senator’s voting record on guns “indefensible.”

“There have only been two major pieces of gun legislation passed in the last 20 years and he voted wrong on both of them: the Brady bill and the [manufacturers’]  immunity law,” Trumble said. “These weren’t one-off votes, either — then-Rep. Sanders also voted for an earlier version of the immunity law in 2003 and against multiple iterations of Brady.

“Having a middling NRA grade means next to nothing in an era where the NRA is essentially an arm of the Republican Party,” she added. “Since Congress so rarely allows gun legislation to come up for a vote, those scores are based on things like judicial confirmation votes that have little, if anything, to do with guns.”

The Sanders-Clinton sparring over guns could be an issue in Monday’s first-in-the-country Iowa caucuses. A Fox News survey has Clinton leading by 6 percentage points, and a CNN/ORC poll puts Sanders up by 8 percentage points.

Sanders’ gun stance and voting record has been noticed at the White House, as well. Following the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., the Obama administration essentially took credit for helping push Sanders to reconsider his stance on legal safeguards for firearms-makers.

White House aides say Obama has no plans to endorse a Democratic candidate during the primary process. But in a recent interview with Politico, Obama lavished Clinton with praise, saying, “She can govern, and she can start here, day one, more experienced than any non-vice president has ever been who aspires to this office.”

Emerging from the West Wing on a chilly day, Sanders tried to dismiss some assertions that Obama had tacitly endorsed his former secretary of state with those comments.

“I think he and the vice president have tried to be fair and even-handed in the process,” Sanders said, also referencing Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “I expect they will continue to be that way.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT. Contact McPherson at lindseymcpherson@cqrollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @lindsemcpherson Related:

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