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Week in politics: Biden's commencement address; Background checks; Midterm elections

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Yesterday, as he spoke to graduates at the University of Delaware, President Biden said the country is at an inflection point in its history. Biden spoke of white supremacy, of bitter political divisions and of too much violence, fear and grief.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Let's be clear. Evil came to that elementary school classroom in Texas, to that grocery store in New York, to far too many places where innocents have died. In the face of such destructive forces, we have to stand stronger.

RASCOE: Joining me now is NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: President Biden acknowledged yesterday that he knows he can't outlaw tragedy, but what can he actually do right now, Mara?

LIASSON: What he can do is what he is doing, is - he's being the mourner in chief. That's a role that the president of the United States has unfortunately had to perform a lot in recent years, whether it's Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing, George Bush after 9/11, Barack Obama after Sandy Hook and Charleston. And Biden had just taken on that role when he visited Buffalo more than a week ago, after that racially-motivated massacre there.

Beyond that, the president can issue a few more executive orders around gun violence. But to get anything else done, it takes legislation. Biden and the Democrats want universal background checks. They - he wants a renewal of the federal assault weapons ban that he pushed through the Senate in 1994. That ban expired in 2004. But the problem is there just isn't enough Republican votes in the Senate for those kinds of laws. You need 10 Republicans to pass anything. And right now, they don't have them.

RASCOE: But isn't it the case that Democratic Senator Chris Murphy is working with some of his Republican colleagues on a bill to address background checks?

LIASSON: That's right, he is. There are negotiations around expanded background checks for commercial gun sales, red flag laws. They involve Texas Senator John Cornyn, Maine Senator Susan Collins. There might be a chance to get something passed. But experience tells us that even when you get these kinds of bipartisan talks going, in the end, they fail to round up the needed votes to actually pass legislation.

And it might've even gotten harder to pass gun control bills because among the Republican base, not just the right to bear arms, but the right to carry semiautomatic weapons has become more of the part of the GOP base voter identity. In other words, antipathy to any kind of gun control is stronger among the Republican base than the last time this kind of effort failed. Even though large majorities of Americans - 88% - say they're for universal background checks, 67% say they're for an assault weapons ban, that is the reverse among the Republican primary base.

RASCOE: Mara, you know, a lot has been said this week about Texas and its loose gun laws. This is a Republican-controlled state. The governor is up for reelection. Like, how is this mass shooting playing out politically?

LIASSON: Well, Democrats are hoping that it will help Beto O'Rourke, the Democrat who's challenging Abbott for governor. O'Rourke actually came into a press conference and challenged Abbott directly - said he wasn't doing anything. There have been a lot of mass shootings in Texas since Abbott was governor - 26 people killed at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, 23 people killed at an El Paso Walmart where the gunman intentionally targeted Latinos. But as you said, the trend in Texas has been to loosen gun laws, make it easier to carry weapons without licenses or training.

And just this weekend, the NRA held its meeting in Houston. Ted Cruz, Texas senator, addressed the meeting - said liberal elites are trying to destroy the Second Amendment. And Donald Trump spoke. He said the answer to these - this kind of violence was impenetrable security at every school across the land.

RASCOE: Well, I mean, that sounds like that could be pretty expensive.

But let's talk about the midterms in the minute we have left, Mara. Last week, you talked about the Georgia primary as a big test of the big lie that the 2020 election was stolen. The results are in, and it seems like Republican voters are not as fixated on that as the former president would like them to be, right?

LIASSON: No, they're not. Governor Brian Kemp trounced former Senator David Perdue. Perdue was Trump's revenge candidate. He wanted to defeat Kemp because Kemp did not agree with the big lie that he actually won Georgia. So I would say the takeaway from the recent Republican primaries is that Trump is no longer the 800-pound gorilla in the room. He's probably the 600-pound gorilla. He's still important, but not the kingmaker he thought he was going to be.

RASCOE: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORBIN ROE, MAYNE AND NICXIX'S "DRIP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.