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Gun Debate Reveals Pitfalls of Filibuster Overhaul

Murphy: ‘I was a proponent of filibuster reform before yesterday. I’m now a revolutionary’

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
The Senate defeated several amendments that Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, supported, including the background check agreement.

This week’s floor votes on guns show how different the Senate world might look without filibuster threats — for better or for worse.

Proponents of changing the Senate rules used Wednesday’s vote on expanding background checks for gun purchases as the latest sign that the chamber should curtail the filibuster rules, but other votes showed simple majorities in favor of a host of provisions those same senators oppose.

President Barack Obama raised the rules question in his remarks in the Rose Garden shortly after the Senate rejected a background check compromise, despite the fact that 54 lawmakers voted in favor of a compromise on expanded checks championed by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III and Pennsylvania Republican Patrick J. Toomey.

“A majority of senators voted ‘yes’ to protecting more of our citizens with smarter background checks,” Obama said. “But by this continuing distortion of Senate rules, a minority was able to block it from moving forward.”

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a freshman Democrat from Connecticut, has emerged as a leading voice on gun control issues in the aftermath of December’s mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. He now says he will focus his attention on rewriting the rules, as well.

“I was a proponent of filibuster reform before yesterday. I’m now a revolutionary,” Murphy told CQ Roll Call. “You know, I don’t think there’s ever been a bigger disconnect between where the American public is on an issue and where the Senate ended up.”

The Senate defeated several amendments that Murphy supported, including the background check agreement. Murphy said the difficulty of getting to 60 votes — required under a unanimous consent agreement because that’s the margin that would have been required to overcome a filibuster — has refocused his attention on the Senate’s operating procedures.

“I’m going to be talking to Leader Reid about trying to take another crack at changing the rules,” Murphy said.

Majority Leader Harry Reid has recently expressed some openness to revisiting the bipartisan package of narrowly crafted rules changes adopted in January, but the Nevada Democrat’s comments on that subject were directed to majority requirements for confirming judicial nominations, not handling legislative business.

While a simple majority threshold would have ensured adoption of the background check amendment, it also would have helped a provision that many gun control advocates opposed. Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn offered an amendment to allow gun owners with concealed carry permits to carry their weapons into other states with concealed carry laws on the books. Cornyn’s amendment garnered 57 votes in support.

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