Bypassing Congress on new rules for gun purchases, President Barack Obama Tuesday offered GOP lawmakers exactly what they have been asking for: expanded access to mental health services. But Republicans, angered by his unilateral actions, didn’t bite.
Republicans have consistently pointed to mental health legislation in the wake of mass shootings, while Democrats focused on tighter rules for buying guns. On Tuesday, Obama proposed a $500 million investment in the mental health system.
“For those in Congress who so often rush to blame mental illness for mass shootings as a way of avoiding action on guns, here’s your chance to support these efforts," Obama said Tuesday. "Put your money where your mouth is.”
But they didn’t — not immediately, anyway.
The president, who had tears rolling down his cheeks as he recalled the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, unveiled a series of executive actions to combat gun violence, including requiring those who sell firearms at gun shows and on the Internet to obtain licenses and conduct background checks for their customers. He also included some mental health provisions, after several high-profile mass shootings by perpetrators who have shown signs of mental illness. Some in Congress are working to overhaul the mental health system, but there are ongoing disagreements over exactly how that should be done.
Several Republican lawmakers did not embrace Obama’s proposal on mental health and criticized the president’s decision to take action on his own.
“An unwillingness to find common ground and achieve compromise has been a hallmark of this president’s tenure, and this issue is unfortunately no different," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement following the president's announcement Tuesday.
"Rather than unilaterally impose a gun control agenda that’s unlawful and strips the constitutional rights of elderly Americans, the President should better enforce current law and work with Congress on legislation reforming our mental health system," said Cornyn, who authored one of the mental health bills moving through Congress.
Across the Capitol, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., is working to overhaul the mental health system. In a statement, Murphy reserved judgement on Obama's specific actions "until we see the full details" of Obama’s funding proposal and other provisions to provide more information on mental illness for background checks. He also said he opposed the executive branch delving into lawmaking.
"There is a big difference between funding 'mental health programs' and enacting reforms addressing serious mental illness," Murphy said. "More money into our disastrously failed and antiquated system will only result in more lives lost." Murphy's bill, which calls for increasing the number of psychiatric hospital beds available and creating a new Cabinet position, faces some partisan opposition due to privacy and cost concerns. But House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday that in terms of a potential congressional response on mental health, "There’s certainly room to come together.”
Sens. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., are sponsoring mental health legislation that is moving through the Senate. But Murphy and Cassidy had divergent responses to the president's actions. Murphy, also a gun control advocate, said in a phone interview, "We have got to keep the pressure on Republicans to admit that the response to these shootings can’t simply be mental health reform.”
Cassidy called Obama's actions "big government at its worst" and called on Obama to focus on the "root causes," of the violence, including mental illness.
None of the mental health bills' proponents addressed referenced how Congress might respond to Obama's request for more funding. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he was doubtful Congress would approve the additional funds, though, he added, he "would be happy to be proven wrong."
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who has pushed for mental health legislation, oversees the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee, which would oversee the funding.
"I welcome the president's interest in this important issue and I look forward to the President's budget request so he can show us where he will get this money and how he will spend it," Blunt told Roll Call.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who oversees the companion subcommittee in the House, did not respond to a request for comment on mental health funding, but called the gun violence actions "constitutionally-dubious executive orders."
Several Democrats seemed open to the expanding support for mental health services. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member on Blunt's subcommittee, said in a statement to Roll Call she was pleased Obama laid out the steps to offer more resources. Five House Democrats who have been focused on mental health also called on congressional leaders to approve the funds.
The president's actions also involved including information on those who receive Social Security benefits for mental illness and information from other government agencies and other entities into the background check system for those wishing to buy guns.
Ron Honberg, national director of policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said there were many questions about the details of these proposals, but more funding was necessary.
"We very much like the proposal to infuse $500 million into the mental health system," Honberg said in a phone interview. "It will have to go through the appropriations process and we know that will be difficult."
Still, Honberg was hopeful there would be an appetite to approve more funding for a system that, he argued, was in desperate need of more resources.
"I think there's certainly heightened interest and concern about mental health on both sides of the aisle in Congress right now," Honberg said. "I'd like to think that there would be strong consideration in Congress."
John T. Bennett and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.
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