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The 5 Republicans Who Got Away on Background Checks The 5 Republicans Who Got Away on Background Checks

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Politics

The 5 Republicans Who Got Away on Background Checks

These GOP senators once looked like winnable votes, but this week they emerged in opposition.

(AP/Rick Bowmer)

photo of Elahe Izadi
April 17, 2013

Last week, gun control advocates were optimistic that some form of legislation could pass through the Senate with 60 votes. But a compromise amendment to expand background checks, crafted by West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, failed Wednesday to garner enough votes needed for passage.

The amendment fell short of the 60 votes needed to pass, failing 54-46. Only four Republicans voted for the amendment: Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Susan Collins of Maine, and Toomey. But Manchin and Toomey were hoping to have more Republican allies, particularly since some of the last holdouts hail from swing states or had previously entertained supporting the legislation. (Five Democrats voted against it: Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid voted no for procedural reasons, but supports the amendment.)

Below are the five Republicans who represented the best chance for the Manchin-Toomey amendment to pass but voted against it—and why.

 

KELLY AYOTTE

What she said:

Ayotte didn’t announce her position until Wednesday, saying in a statement, “I believe that restricting the rights of law-abiding gun owners will not prevent a deranged individual or criminal from obtaining and misusing firearms to commit violence. While steps must be taken to improve the existing background-check system, I will not support the Manchin-Toomey legislation, which I believe would place unnecessary burdens on law-abiding gun owners and allow for potential overreach by the federal government into private gun sales.”

Why she was a winnable vote:

Ayotte voted to allow the gun debate to come to the floor, along with 15 other Senate Republicans. New Hampshire is a state that voted for Obama twice. The New England Republican doesn’t face re-election until 2016, so there is less political pressure for her to vote against expanding background checks.

The politics behind her opposition:

Ayotte has been a reliable conservative on other issues, including gay marriage, even though voters in her state legalized it. And the state, whose motto is “Live Free or Die,” has a longstanding gun culture and libertarian streak in its politics.

JEFF FLAKE

What he said:

Flake announced his opposition Monday via a Facebook post, writing that the compromise “would expand background checks far beyond commercial sales to include almost all private transfers—including between friends and neighbors—if the posting or display of the ad for a firearm was made public. It would likely even extend to message boards, like the one in an office kitchen. This simply goes too far.” He added that he backs background checks and he supports Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham's bill, which attempts to keep people deemed mentally unfit from buying guns.

Why he was a winnable vote:

Flake is a close friend of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and her husband Mark Kelly, who have been lobbying lawmakers to support the Manchin-Toomey compromise. Flake sat next to them during President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address and was at the hospital after Giffords was shot in 2011. Flake isn’t up for reelection until 2018, so if he was going to take heat from his base over a compromise, this was the best possible time to do it. His Republican colleague from Arizona, Sen. John McCain, voted for the Manchin-Toomey amendment.

The politics behind his opposition:

Flake is from Arizona, a gun-owning state where conservative voters are deeply skeptical of government regulations on guns. Flake’s position has resulted in a highly public falling out with Kelly and Giffords. Kelly said Tuesday that he’d work to replace Flake in the Senate. “Friendship is one thing, saving people’s lives, especially first-graders’, is another,” Kelly told reporters.

LISA MURKOWSKI

What she said:

In a statement, Murkowski said she prefers a GOP-backed alternative authored by Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa over the Manchin-Toomey compromise. “I believe this legislation is more in line with Alaska, because it accomplishes our shared goals without adding any new steps or layers of bureaucracy for any law-abiding Alaskan who wants to purchase a firearm for sport or protection.”

Why she was a winnable vote:

Murkowski has proven that she’s willing to break with GOP leadership in the past. For instance, she was against using the debt ceiling as leverage in exchange for spending cuts. As late as last week, the Alaska Republican sounded like she could be pulled away to vote for the compromise, adding that Manchin is making “a genuine effort to try to address how we can provide for strengthened background checks that do not impinge on the rights of law-abiding citizens.” Murkowski told the News-Miner of Fairbanks that, “I do think that most Alaskans, most Americans, would say ‘Look, if there's a way we can keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people and convicted felons, then that's not unreasonable, that's not a limitation on my Second Amendment rights.’ ”

The politics behind her opposition:

Murkowski faces reelection in 2016, and the pro-gun sentiment runs strong in her state. Even Alaska’s Democratic senator, Mark Begich, voted against the gun-control compromise. President Obama lost the state by 14 points in 2012, and the state House even passed a gun “nullification” law. Alaskan lawmakers have expressed skepticism on the Senate amendment because many Alaskans don’t live near licensed dealers.

DEAN HELLER

What he’s said:

In a statement, Heller said he thinks the current background-check system needs to be improved, “particularly in areas that could keep guns out of the hands of felons and the mentally ill.”

“At the same time, I cannot support legislation that infringes upon the Constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Despite the good-faith efforts of Senators Manchin and Toomey, the onerous paperwork and expansion of federal power mandated in this legislation are too great of a concern,” he said. “I believe that this legislation could lead to the creation of a national gun registry and puts additional burdens on law-abiding citizens.”

Why he was a winnable vote:

Heller needs to appeal to a diversifying electorate in Nevada, which is trending Democratic. Indeed, Heller moved to the center on immigration during his 2012 election bid against Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley. Like Toomey, he’s a Senate Republican representing a state President Obama won and needs to show cross-party appeal ahead of his 2018 reelection.

The politics behind his opposition:

Pro-gun sentiment runs deep in this southwestern state. Even Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid has benefited from NRA support in the past. In 2010, the gun-lobby group’s executive director commended Reid, calling him “a true champion” of gun rights and thanking him “for your support every day at the federal level for the Second Amendment and for the rights of American gun owners.” Those statements were viewed as a political boost for Reid.

RICHARD BURR

What he’s said:

Burr released a statement this week declaring his opposition to the Manchin-Toomey amendment. “I supported having a debate on the issue of violent crime, but as I made clear from the outset, I will oppose any legislation that chips away at our constitutional rights. After reviewing the current text of the Manchin-Toomey proposal, I have numerous Second Amendment, due-process, and privacy concerns that make the legislation too problematic for it to ever become law.”

Why he was a winnable vote:

The state’s Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, faces a tough 2014 reelection fight, and voted for the Manchin-Toomey compromise. Burr voted to allow the gun-control debate to come to the Senate floor, which signaled he could have followed his colleague on the Manchin-Toomey amendment, too.

The politics behind his opposition:

Burr, who’s up for reelection in 2016, faced backlash from pro-gun corners in his state for even allowing the debate to come to the Senate floor. And although Southern conservatism seems to be chipping away in North Carolina, it’s still a swing state—President Obama barely won the state in 2008 and narrowly lost it in 2012.

CORRECTION: Dean Heller was elected to his first term, not re-elected, in 2012.

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