WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio hurried through the crowd to a waiting SUV when a man approached him with an urgent plea: "Do something about guns."
"We're trying," Rubio replied, heading back to Capitol Hill after an event honoring a slain Russian dissident.
"Please," the man said.
"Safety," Rubio added. "We're going to do something about safety."
That was early Tuesday and Washington was full of talk about substantial action following the Feb. 14 school shooting in Florida. This time would be different, a tipping point for a fed-up nation.
But in the days since, reality has settled over Washington. Both parties are retreating to familiar sides of the contentious gun debate and Republican leaders are not rushing to put legislation up for a vote. The Senate next week will focus on moving a banking bill.
The whiplash goes right to the top. President Donald Trump bucked his party by advocating for numerous measures, such as raising the purchase age for rifles and expanding background checks to cover all gun buys. Yet by Friday that seemed to be unraveling following a meeting Trump had with the NRA, the White House suddenly sending less confident signs on what will be done.
"Conceptually, he still supports raising the age to 21," Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. "But he also knows there's not a lot of broad support for that. But that's something he would support." She suggested wiggle room on other fronts as well.
People on both sides remain hopeful something will happen in the face of widespread public support. Seven out of 10 Floridians support stricter gun laws, according to a poll this week, mirroring rising national support.
But momentum and bipartisanship are rare on Capitol Hill, which does not face a deadline like lawmakers in Tallahassee fast approaching the end of the 60-day legislative session, though they too are struggling with gun-related proposals.
"The time to act is now," Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said Wednesday in a speech from the chamber. "Let's don't let what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High fade into a memory like so many other tragedies."
Nelson and other Democrats want comprehensive background checks that extend to gun shows and private sales, age restrictions and an assault weapons ban — the latter of which is a nonstarter for most Republicans, who are focusing on school security and mental health issues and pushing a modest measure to boost state and federal agency reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Democrats support that but fear it will be the only legislation that moves and have threatened to block it as a result.
Rubio on Thursday endorsed "Fix NICS," as well as legislation called the Stop School Violence Act that would provide federal grants to strengthen security and training to identify threats. He said he would introduce legislation for "gun violence restraining orders," which would allow law enforcement or family members to remove guns from people deemed a threat. He called for more prosecutors to go after people who purchase weapons for those who cannot legally obtain them on their own.
But the Republican who has an A-plus rating from the NRA sidelined two measures he talked about during a recent CNN town hall: raising the purchase age for assault-style rifles and restricting magazine capacity.
"These reforms do not enjoy the sort of widespread support in Congress that the other measures announced today enjoy," said Rubio, who took heat from the right for saying he was open to those restrictions. He also has taken fierce criticism from gun-control advocates, including student survivors of Parkland, some of whom visited privately with lawmakers this week, Rubio included.
In the House there is bipartisan support for the Stop School Violence Act, which is being led in part by Reps. John Rutherford, R-Jacksonville, and Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, and was introduced in January. "I think it's going to move pretty quickly," Rutherford said. "I know something is going to happen."
Republican Rep. Brian Mast of Palm City, an Army veteran who lost both legs in Afghanistan, made national news when he came out in favor of an assault weapons ban. But most Republicans reject the idea.
Mast was among the Florida lawmakers attending a meeting Wednesday at the White House in which the president delighted Democrats by supporting universal background checks and even suggested an assault weapons ban should be considered. He accused some in the room of being "petrified" of the NRA.
"I just hope we can act, that we can show the American people and the kids and their grieving families in my district that with presidential leadership, it doesn't matter what Congress says, that you can help push this forward and that we will consider everything," Deutch told Trump.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., whose state endured the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, similarly implored Trump to use his position. "It's going to have to be you that brings the Republicans to the table on this because right now, the gun lobby would stop it in its tracks."
The meeting alarmed the NRA, which followed up Thursday night with Trump and later declared he and the vice president "support the Second Amendment, support strong due process and don't want gun control." Trump responded on Twitter, "Good (Great) meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA!"
So the landscape remains muddled and election year dynamics are pushing both parties apart. And the NRA, which looked like it was on the defensive, has marshaled its significant weight in Washington and Tallahassee.
"I think the gun lobby ultimately wins," said former U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Pinellas County Republican. Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott in Tallahassee "should be encouraged for working on incremental reforms, but I think voters today see incremental reforms as insufficient."
Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son Daniel was among those slaughtered in Sandy Hook, remains hopeful that the Parkland shooting will be a galvanizing force, driven by articulate, social media savvy students and polling showing broad support for gun control.
"You can't ignore that and if you do, you're going to hear it at election time," Barden said after appearing at a news conference supporting the House version of the Stop Act. "I think the sentiment across the country is get on board and look for sensible solutions or get out of the way."