The mood was celebratory Thursday after a bipartisan coalition of senators defeated a conservative attempt to block debate on gun legislation. Gun-control advocates applauded, members congratulated one another, and the White House voiced approval of this "very important" development.
And on the other side of the Capitol, House Republicans yawned.
Despite the considerable progress made in the upper chamber toward a bill that could pass the Senate—most notably, the expanded-background check provision drafted by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.—nothing has changed in the lower chamber.
In the House, Republicans are in the majority. Conservatives are the majority of that majority. And the majority of those conservatives are convinced they should not be legislating on guns—even if an ideologically kindred spirit like Toomey has provided them political cover to do so.
"He hasn't given me any cover," Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., said of Toomey's support for expanded background checks. Walberg was never going to vote for such legislation anyway, with or without Toomey’s support for it.
In the four months since Newtown, conservative House Republicans have made a consistent case against passing new gun-related laws. For one, they've said, it's not their job—gun legislation should be left to the states. They've also argued that passing new laws won't prevent criminals from obtaining weapons and will serve only to impede the rights of law-abiding citizens. Above all, these conservative House members have said the gun-control debate is nothing more than an academic exercise until something actually passes the Senate, which many members predicted would never happen.
House Republicans have thus far remained mum on whether the Toomey-Manchin deal changes the outlook in their chamber. But already House GOP aides are predicting the bill’s demise. “It's going to be an incredibly heavy lift” in the House, said one high-ranking Republican aide. Other House GOP aides agreed, citing concerns over registries, constituent concerns, and primary challenges.
But Toomey, a former House member who has many friends in the lower chamber, is not convinced that his former colleagues will uniformly oppose his legislation. “I know there are a substantial number of House Republicans that are supportive of this general approach,” Toomey said Wednesday. “There are definitely Republicans in the House who support this.”
And some of those members, such as Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, said it would be a mistake to underestimate Toomey’s read on the political landscape in the House.
“Pat Toomey knows this place pretty well,” said Cole, who also noted that he doesn’t know yet whether he could support expanded background checks. “Obviously he served over here, was a very conservative member himself. So if he thinks there's something to be put together, I would say he probably knows what he's talking about.”
That might be right, but any House Republican who votes to expand background checks will do so at his or her own risk. Soon after Toomey and Manchin announced their agreement—which aims to ease conservative concerns that background checks will lead to a national registry of gun owners—Heritage Action, the powerful political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, tweeted in response: "Attn Senators: You won't get a pass from us."
That message was not aimed only at Toomey and Manchin, but at others who might be inclined to follow their lead. After all, Toomey is a conservative's conservative. He has an "A" rating from the NRA. He was once president of the Club for Growth. He also heads the conservative Senate Republican Steering Committee. By lending his support to expanded background checks, other lawmakers have reason to reconsider their opposition.
Heritage Action isn’t the only political force to be reckoned with. The NRA has also come out forcefully against the background-check bill, warning senators of political retribution should they vote in favor of the Toomey-Manchin agreement. Meanwhile, fringe groups such as the National Association for Gun Rights have already aired TV ads attacking Republican House members for backing relatively benign legislation to beef up penalties for “straw purchasing.” These ads were meant to have a chilling effect on GOP lawmakers, warning them of what could happen should they support any additional gun laws.
Leading House conservatives—some of whom have consistently voiced their opposition to any additional gun laws—were careful to reserve judgment until they looked at the legislative text.
“Haven’t seen it,” Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., said of the background-check bill. “We haven't seen it, so it's really premature for me to comment on where it is at this point,” echoed Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. Several other Republican members said the same.
What Happens Now
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday that the House will follow regular order with any gun-related legislation that comes from the Senate. That means if the Senate package is approved, it will head to the House Judiciary Committee, where conservative members dominate (19 of the panel’s 23 Republicans belong to the Republican Study Committee, a subgroup tasked with steering the GOP Conference rightward). Indeed, it has long been whispered that any gun-related legislation that passed the Senate would, in all likelihood, die an ugly death in House Judiciary.
Despite the pessimistic outlook from conservative corners of the House, there were some signs of hope for gun-control advocates. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Wednesday morning on MSNBC that closing the gun-show loophole is "a reasonable area" to legislate, and said he thinks there's a "workable solution" to be found.
Of course, if the background-check bill makes it to the House floor, it will not need widespread Republican support to pass. Fewer than two dozen Republican “yes” votes would be required for passage, assuming most (if not all) Democrats voted in favor. For Boehner, such a scenario would be a blatant violation of the “Hastert Rule”—a doctrine generally followed by GOP speakers to only bring to the floor legislation that is supported by a majority of the majority.
But Boehner, who has angered conservatives before by defying Hastert, hinted on Thursday that he’s prepared to do so again. “It was never a rule to begin with,” Boehner said.
This article appears in the April 12, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.