Congress stunned by Orlando shootings (Politico)

The shooting deaths of 50 people in Orlando sharply jolted Capitol Hill out of its election-year doldrums.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has been briefed by Obama administration officials, while CIA Director John Brennan is scheduled to testify in an open hearing in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday. That panel will also hold a closed briefing Tuesday afternoon.

President Obama scheduled a rare Sunday statement on the shootings and the killings prompted Vice President Joe Biden to cancel a fundraiser with Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).


And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Congress will "monitor developments from local law enforcement and the FBI to determine the exact nature of this crime and whether it was connected to international terrorist groups." Members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees were being briefed by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence on Sunday.


"I have spoken with the FBI and there appears to be a link to Islamic radicalism," Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said in a statement Sunday afternoon. "I have conferred with additional sources and they think there is likely a connection with ISIS. So as we all mourn the senseless loss of life and investigators continue to learn more, we must remain vigilant and remember that if you see something, say something.”


Many lawmakers said they were seeking more information about the horrific shootings and Omar Mateen, who officials say shot more than 100 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, according to the Orlando Sentinel. But some members of Congress began a public search for Mateen’s motivations in the immediate hours after the shootings.


Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said the city appears to be the “latest front” in terrorist attacks by “violent Islam.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said intelligence officials are trying to determine whether Mateen had any links with other alleged terrorists or groups.


"I am not jumping to any conclusions, but from my experience, this look likes radical Islam," Nunes said.


Others immediately trained their focus on how guns are obtained by mass shooters. Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy (D) said, “Congress has become complicit in these murders by its total, unconscionable deafening silence." The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence singled out Florida’s gun laws as doing “nothing to prevent these types of tragedies” and said the immediate task at hand should focus on what “Florida lawmakers and Congress should be doing to keep guns out of dangerous hands.”


The immediate political gamesmanship prompted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to plead with Congress to juggle both the divisive topics of guns and terrorism amid a highly charged political atmosphere.


“If it is found out that this person was at least conspired by ISIS, then it'll probably be a terrorism debate. If he wasn't, it may be a gun debate. … it seems to be one or the other,” Flake said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. The debate over tightening background checks on people with mental illness “should go on as well as the debate on how to best protect us against those who were inspired or funded or directed by international terrorists.”


The attack on a pillar of Orlando’s gay community also weighed on congressional Democrats. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the violence was aimed at “people hoping just to spend a night out dancing.”


Added Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.): “That this act of hate occurred at an LGBT mainstay during LGBT Pride Month makes it all the more horrific.”


The news of the one of the most deadly shooting attacks in American history lands just as Congress eyes largely shutting down until the November elections. But if lawmakers are looking to press their point on the House or Senate floor, they still have a chance: Both chambers are in the heart of spending bill season, a legislative process that allow members to press amendments on gun control and terrorism if they choose.


Many lawmakers spent Sunday trying to frame the debate on the airwaves ahead of this week’s congressional session and a likely slate of briefings that will attract major media interest. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said that while there is little information yet on Mateen, the alleged shooter, there were signs that the attack was motivated by radical Islamic ideology.


"Over the next couple days, they're going to be looking to see where this individual was inspired to carry out this horrifying act of terrorism," Rubio said during an interview on CNN. "I think we're going to be talking about a very different kind of case here very soon, in my sense."


Rubio, who serves on the Intelligence Committee, warned that more such “lone wolf” attacks may come in the future.


"We have to continue to explain to people that this is the new face in the war on terror," Rubio added. "They have said openly they're going to target us here, and that the individual who carries out an attack by themselves on a soft target like this... it's a reminder that the war on terror is something we've never had to confront before."


Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, said he has been briefed by the Homeland Security Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on the shooting.


"What I've heard from the Department of Homeland Security this morning is that, according to local police, [Mateen] made a pledge of allegiance to ISIL, was heard praying in a foreign language," Schiff said on CNN. He said the Orlando incident has signs "of an ISIL inspired-attack. Whether this was ISIL-directed, we don't know."