Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel returned to Washington on Monday to make the case for the White House’s ambitious gun-control agenda. Instead, President Obama’s former chief of staff and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman also unwittingly revealed why passing additional gun control through Congress is so politically difficult—and could very well remain that way.
Emanuel, speaking Monday at the Center for American Progress with Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said that while Chicago would "wholeheartedly" back whatever proposal on guns the president makes, some lawmakers won't have that political breathing room needed to support gun-control legislation. That's something Emanuel, who was an adviser to President Clinton when the now-expired assault-weapons ban became law in 1994, knows firsthand.
Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, in part, because of Bill Clinton’s advocacy of gun control, Emanuel pointed out. It's a lesson that he has not forgotten, especially after he helped elect pro-gun Democrats who helped the party take back control of the House in 2006. It's also another illustration of the difficulty of getting legislation to the president's desk.
"When the passage comes don't everybody run around and run away come November and then say …'Yeah you did that, but what have you done for me lately?' Because guess what? What happened after '94? … So my view is we have a responsibility to support our friends if they take a tough political vote," Emanuel said.
Emanuel added: “But if a person's gonna take a tough vote, don't walk away from them come the political season. Support them.”
This is a political reality not lost on Republicans who stand to gain if Democrats representing states and districts with strong attachments to guns vote with the president on gun control.
"Guns are often one of the ways that red-state Democrats differentiate themselves from national Democrats," said Andy Sere, a Republican political strategist with experience working on Southern congressional campaigns. "I think that some of these guys are dreading the vote. Some of them are probably looking forward to it as a chance to prove their independence from the national party. The ones who are up in 2014 from red states, they'll pay a price for it."
Congress's current makeup, with Republicans controlling the House and a number of Democrats in the Senate facing tough reelection bids in 2014, also makes passing gun-control legislation difficult. Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia's decision to retire after his term ends in 2014 illustrates the difficulty facing Democratic lawmakers from conservative states. Six additional Senate Democrats representing states that Mitt Romney carried are up for reelection in two years. While Obama won't have to face voters again, Democrats in rural districts and states will.
House Republicans have telegraphed they would consider Vice President Joe Biden's recommendations, to be unveiled on Tuesday, but stopped short of pledging to have a vote. Thompson, who chairs an all-Democratic task force on preventing gun violence, said he's optimistic that legislation could get passed, but Emanuel offered practical advice based on political reality.
"My view is whatever you do start in the Senate. Get it done there. Clear the decks.... That's where you're going to get your best leverage," Emanuel said.