WASHINGTON -- Delivering a rare rebuke to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Speaker Dennis Hastert said Thursday that he has not yet decided whether to call for a vote to renew the ban on assault weapons before it expires next year.
DeLay (R-Texas) said Tuesday that the votes do not exist to renew the 10-year ban, scheduled to end in the fall of 2004, and an aide said he would not send the bill to the floor.
DeLay's comments sparked an uproar among gun-control supporters because President Bush had promised to sign legislation to extend the ban. Some Democrats and gun-control groups accused Bush of playing both sides of the issue, saying he had the power to persuade House Republicans to bring the bill to a vote.
The law bans the manufacture, transfer or possession of 19 assault weapons, including Uzis, AK-47s and TEC-9s. Gun-control advocates say the law has reduced violent crime, while the National Rifle Association and other gun enthusiasts say the measure doesn't work and has infringed on Americans' constitutional rights.
Hastert (R-Ill.) said he spoke with DeLay after the majority leader announced that the bill would fail.
"I think he was trying to put his old whip's hat on and try to figure out whether he had the votes or not," said Hastert, who opposed the ban nine years ago.
"That bill hasn't been discussed by the leadership yet," Hastert continued. "I haven't had a discussion with the president yet, so I'm not ready to make that decision."
Asked if he wanted to renew the ban, Hastert declined to say: "I'm reserving my personal opinion."
Stuart Roy, a spokesman for DeLay, downplayed Hastert's words, saying no decision has to be made soon.
"He and the speaker are in agreement that no decision has been made, and the ineffective gun ban doesn't expire for a year and a half," Roy said.
Roy also said the House had become "more strongly pro-gun-ownership rights" since the law was enacted. He said Democrats would rather vote on the measure before the coming election year because gun control is an issue that will hurt them at the polls.
Democrats, however, said Republicans will hurt themselves if they refuse to send the legislation to the House floor.
"It's an extreme position and it will hurt the president and his party," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who voted for the original ban as a congressman and supports renewing it.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she was looking to the president to persuade the Republican leadership to allow a vote.
"I hope the president will use his good offices," said Pelosi.
Matt Bennett, a spokesman for Americans for Gun Safety, said he welcomed Hastert's comments and the possibility that Republicans would not bottle up the legislation.
"I think it could show they feel vulnerable for the first time in the Bush presidency on the gun issue," Bennett said, noting the strong response to DeLay's words and a new report that alleges the Department of Justice is not enforcing existing gun laws.
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