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All eyes now shift to Harry Reid. With the Senate Judiciary Committee completing its work on a series of gun measures Thursday, the majority leader must determine his strategy for how the full chamber will move forward in response to last year’s Connecticut school shooting.
Reid told reporters Thursday that he has conferred with Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. “He and I are going to sit down, find out now what has been reported out of the committee and what we need to put together as a base bill to start legislating on the Senate floor,” the Nevada Democrat said.
Leahy also pledged to work with Reid “to see how he intends to proceed.”
A renewal of the assault weapons ban, in particular, could put Reid in a bind. He has not publicly endorsed the highly controversial measure and may be reluctant to bring it to a floor vote, given that about 10 Democrats from gun-friendly states face re-election next year and are uneasy about — or, in some cases, outright opposed — to the measure.
At the same time, Senate Democrats are mindful of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he made an emotional plea for action — as shooting victims and their families looked on from the House galleries — by repeating his contention that gun violence victims “deserve a vote.” Obama pointedly used that phrase again in a statement Thursday thanking the Judiciary Committee for its work.
“The Senate has now advanced legislation addressing three of the most important elements of my proposal to help reduce the epidemic of gun violence in this country,” the president said, referring to the assault weapons bill (S 150) and measures that crack down on gun trafficking (S 54) and expand background checks for gun sales (S 374).
“Now the full Senate and the House need to vote on this bill, as well as [other] measures,” Obama added. “Each of these proposals deserves a vote.”
The Judiciary Committee backed the assault weapons ban, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., along party lines Thursday and approved the other measures during two previous days of markup. It also backed separate legislation (S 146) that would boost funds for school safety.
“We’ve essentially completed our work,” Leahy told his panel. Later, both he and Judiciary’s ranking Republican, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said they do not expect additional committee markups on gun-related legislation.
Still unclear is whether all of the gun legislation reported by the Judiciary Committee will be considered on the Senate floor and whether it would come up as a package or in individual parts.
One complicating factor is that the committee approved a placeholder bill on background checks while bipartisan negotiations continue on the issue between Democrats Charles E. Schumer of New York and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mark S. Kirk of Illinois.
Moreover, senators who have introduced other gun bills that the Judiciary Committee did not consider are likely to offer them as amendments during the gun debate on the floor.
One such bill (S 480), aimed at clarifying the definition of mental illness used to deny firearms to those who should not have them, is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group including Democrats Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
On Wednesday, Graham said a broader group of bipartisan senators might come out in support of that legislation, potentially giving it momentum that most other gun-related proposals do not have. Still, Republicans who back the mental-health proposal may be unlikely to support it if it is attached to an underlying bill on assault weapons or expanded background checks.
During Thursday’s markup, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., floated the idea of splitting Feinstein’s bill into two in order to boost the prospects for getting close to the 60-vote threshold needed to thwart a filibuster in the Senate.
The duo voiced support for holding a separate floor vote on the ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines contained in Feinstein’s bill. They suggested that the measure could garner sufficient support if untethered from the larger proposal to reinstate and expand the federal assault weapons ban that lapsed in 2004.
“I believe there may well be an effort to divide the assault weapon ban from the high-capacity magazine ban,” Blumenthal said. “I welcome that kind of split.”
While Senate leaders plot a path forward, advocacy groups are gearing up for a floor fight. In an email to supporters Wednesday night, Gun Owners of America said it would be urging senators to block any gun-related legislation from reaching the floor.
“The chief strategic objective is now to keep gun control votes from coming to the Senate floor by opposing the ‘motion to proceed’ to any bill which is going to be used as a vehicle for gun votes,” the group said.
The House also is waiting on Reid. Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., the co-sponsor of bipartisan gun trafficking legislation (HR 452), said he expects his chamber to wait until final Senate action on guns before considering his proposal and others.
“My own sense is that we’re waiting to see where the Senate goes,” Meehan said in an interview.