After the Senate dealt a blow to one of President Obama’s top second-term priorities, voting down a bipartisan measure to expand background checks on gun purchases, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pledged that, “This was just the beginning.”
The challenge, after a furious lobbying effort that included visits from the families of Newtown shooting victims, personal pleas from former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, and the full might of the White House, is what more could be done next.
Top Democrats on Capitol Hill had few answers Wednesday evening. “There is more that we can do and will do,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, though he — and no else, including the president, who called the vote “just round one” — specified exactly what.
Democrats had made a full-court press for passage Wednesday, including a rare appearance by a frail 89-year-old Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who arrived on the floor in a wheelchair to cheers from his colleagues.
Vice President Joe Biden made an unusual appearance to preside over the Senate for the roll call as the families of Sandy Hook victims looked on from the gallery. The measure, which required 60 votes to pass, failed anyway, 54-46.
“Shame on you,” a woman shouted from the rafters, shortly after Biden read the final tally aloud.
In a serious setback for gun-control advocates, Sen. Pat Toomey, the key Pennsylvania Republican who negotiated the bipartisan background-check package, said in a statement shortly after the vote that he accepted defeat and did not vow to fight further. “It’s not the outcome I hoped for, but the Senate has spoken on the subject, and it’s time to move on,” he said.
His partner in negotiating the deal, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he hadn’t spoken with Toomey since the vote, but that he wasn’t giving up, hoping “everyone’s got whatever they’re getting out of their system.”
Still, questions of why the Democratic leadership pushed a bill to the floor that ultimately fell five votes short had some whispering about poor planning. “There is going to be a lot of hindsighting,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who represents Newtown. He didn’t count himself among the critics, though. “We had to have a vote at some point, and I think now is as good a time as any, and we're just going to be determined and keep fighting.”
In the final tally, only four Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Toomey — crossed party lines to vote with most of the Democrats.
Of the Senate’s 55 Democrats and allied independents, only four voted against the gun-control measure: Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. . Each of them hails from a state carried by Mitt Romney last year, and all but Heitkamp are up for reelection in 2014. (Reid also voted no in the final tally, but only for procedural reasons in order to more easily bring the bill up later.)
One liberal group, the Courage Campaign, asked its activist members on Wednesday to cut off all support to Democratic senators who voted against expanded background checks. “The NRA can play hardball — but so can you. We're the activists, the Democratic base. We're the people who donate in elections, knock on doors, and get out the vote in tight elections,” the group said in an e-mail to its members.
Another group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, committed to an ad campaign targeting Baucus, Begich, Heitkamp, and Pryor.
But even if all the Democrats came aboard, the measure would remain one vote shy of breaking a GOP-led filibuster.
What became clear Wednesday evening is that any momentum the gun-control movement had had in the wake of the Newtown tragedy had been stalled. Democrats remain heartened that the public overwhelmingly agrees with them on the issue of background checks. But they acknowledged that hopes for swift action have devolved into a longer legislative slog.
“It takes a long time for these wheels of democracy to grind forward,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters and families of victims after the vote, “but they will.”
This article appears in the April 18, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.