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Reid Has Few Reasons to Rush Gun Debate

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Reid needs at least 60 votes in his pocket — or ideally, many more — to force the House’s hand on the gun background check issue.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has the tools he needs to overcome any initial filibuster of a firearms background check bill, but he may not be inclined to use them.

Indeed, the Nevada Democrat is biding his time, even as President Barack Obama embarks on an aggressive new push for votes on a variety of gun-related measures, including background checks and a new prohibition on assault weapons.

The trouble for Reid is the new process — established in January through modest filibuster rules changes — may have a fatal flaw in practice when the Nevada Democrat actually wants the bill involved to become law.

The new rules allow Reid to bring any bill to the floor without having to produce a filibuster-proof majority if he gives at least two amendment votes to each party, but those rules do not prevent senators from blocking a bill from passing once it’s up for debate. In the case of the background check bill, using the maneuver would almost certainly be a sign that Democrats do not have the 60 votes to beat back a filibuster of the bill before it reaches final passage. And waiting until a bill is on the floor to forge a compromise is a risky bet.

Plus, Reid needs at least 60 votes in his pocket — or ideally, many more — to force the House’s hand on the issue. Only an overwhelming vote by the Senate would have any chance of putting pressure on Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to take up a similar package. The fear has been that if any gun bill passes narrowly, if at all, there would not be enough political cover to force House Republicans to bring it up for a vote.

The need for a bipartisan deal may be why Democratic leaders have been so cagey about exactly when the debate will start.

Leadership tentatively had planned to bring up the gun bill as early as this week, straight off the two-week holiday break, but aides said the leadership’s preference is for all the pieces to be resolved before taking the bill to the floor.

Plus, if Reid opens up the process to amendments, he could make in-cycle Democrats vulnerable to political poison pill votes on an already charged issue. And if there’s no bipartisan deal and passage looks slim or sets up impossible votes in the House, it begs the question of why expose these members to the danger at all?

Negotiators on a deal to expand the nation’s gun background check program — long viewed as one of the few areas for bipartisan agreement and the centerpiece of a firearms package — had originally planned to announce an agreement as early as this week.

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