The congressional recess hasn’t been kind to Harry Reid’s push for major gun legislation. Shortly after lawmakers left town, news broke that GOP Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul informed the Democratic Senate majority leader by letter that they would filibuster “any additional gun restrictions”—a pledge later seconded by fellow Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and James Inhofe.
The news instigated the inevitable round of breathless hand-wringing over the bill’s future. But if gun legislation dies on the Senate floor, it won’t be because of the Filibuster Five. In the game to get 60 votes, some holdouts were inevitable. And behind the scenes, aides say, work continues on a deal for expanded background checks that is palatable to at least some Republicans, as well as moderate Democrats nervous about coming on board.
Negotiations between Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., bogged down over whether private sellers would have to maintain records of background checks. The lines of communication are still open between the two men, but much of the deal-making has now fallen to Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat known for his pro-gun positions. Manchin has been talking to GOP Sen. Mark Kirk, a moderate from Illinois, along with Coburn and other Republican senators, in a bid to find a compromise.
Democrats believe that if a pro-gun senator like Manchin endorses a bill, other moderate Democrats from Republican-leaning states could support it. Kirk’s backing likely doesn’t carry as much weight with his conference as Coburn’s would because he’s a centrist. And no matter which GOP name ends up on a bipartisan deal, it will still be a tough sell. The details will matter.
Deal or no deal, Reid will likely bring gun legislation to the floor at the end of next week or early in the week of April 15, according to a senior Senate Democratic leadership aide. “A bid to strike a compromise will heat up when we return,” another Democratic leadership aide said.
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s home state of Connecticut—the site of the school shootings in December that sparked the new gun-control push—this week passed a bipartisan plan to overhaul its gun laws. The Senate should follow his state’s lead, Blumenthal told National Journal. With widespread support for keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, he said, there’s “a real opportunity for compromise on national background checks.”
But the possibility is very real that no agreement will be reached and that Reid will put the Democratic bill on the floor and dare the GOP to block it. The Democrats have made the decision, in tandem with gun-control advocates, that sweeping background checks must be part of the final package. They would rather lose on the floor than deal that away. “We made background checks the measure of whether folks are serious about trying to do something here,” the second leadership aide says. “We’re going to make this very sensible piece of legislation the alternative to doing nothing.”
Despite criticism that Reid has waited too long to act after Newtown put guns back into the national conversation and gave gun-control advocates the political high ground, some Democrats are standing by the majority leader’s strategy. And his defenders argue that he worked as quickly as possible, considering he had to wait weeks for the White House to issue its recommendations.
Despite efforts toward compromise, some Republicans doubt that any gun legislation will pass, with or without the support of some GOP senators. That helps explain the outsized reaction to the filibuster threat. Certainly, part of it is politics. Three of the filibuster letter’s cosigners (Cruz, Paul, and Rubio) are considered presidential prospects in 2016. As one senior Republican aide put it, the letter amounts to “a purity pissing contest on who’s going to best protect the Second Amendment.”
The letter also nicely encapsulates the split between Republicans opposed to any new gun restrictions and conservatives still working with Democrats to cut a deal. That tension is going to come into full view when the Senate returns.
But for Democrats and the gun-control community, the more significant takeaway from the filibuster letter and the attention it drew is that enough time has elapsed since the school shootings to make such a threat politically acceptable. It was “clearly a sign now that the post-Newtown politics have cooled,” the Democratic aide said, “given they can be so unabashed about blocking a debate on a commonsense gun bill.”