Gun politics appear all-but-certain to destroy any chance of advancing a bipartisan hunting, fishing and conservation package — and with it, a chance for Sen. Kay Hagan and other endangered Democrats to tout their bipartisan legislative bona fides ahead of the November elections.
The package had huge initial support on a test vote, but like so many other bills this Congress, it quickly devolved into a standoff over politically charged amendments. A fight over gun control isn't what Democrats had in mind when they brought the bill to the floor, but that's what they got.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wants to broadly expand firearm access within the District of Columbia, and numerous other amendments by Republicans would expand access to firearms and ammunition, cheered on by the group Gun Owners of America. That group has blasted the bill as a "fake 'pro-gun' bill designed to re-elect endangered anti-gun Democrats up in 2014 in pro-gun states," and the "Harry Reid Preservation Act."
Collectively, the amendments could be dicey for Democrats who came into the week looking for relatively easy votes in favor of hunting and fishing.
Advocates of stricter gun laws also are mobilizing. Brian Malte, senior national policy director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said gun safety advocates would be calling their allies to let them know about Paul’s “terrible amendment” and “other terrible amendments” that Republicans were trying to attach to the sportsmen’s bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was left Wednesday to accuse Republicans of trying to offer an unreasonable number of amendments as he moved to curtail debate — a familiar refrain.
"If you want an amendment process, bring me a reasonable list that leads to passage of the bill," the Nevada Democrat said.
Several Senate Republicans said they did not know why Reid scheduled the bill in the first place, if he wasn't going to allow an open amendment process.
"I guess I'm sort of mystified as to what the strategy is if this is about helping her," Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota said of Hagan. "Many of us would like to see the bill get enacted, but you can't keep stuffing us."
Thune said Hagan should be frustrated with Reid. "It's her bill. It would be a big accomplishment if she can get it through," he said.
"Is he expecting a different outcome?" Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked of Reid's move to fill the amendment tree blocking any amendments to the bill. Cornyn's question could be read as a threat; if past is prologue, a failure to agree on amendments will result in Republicans voting to filibuster the bill.
Despite a flood of gun amendments, Cornyn contended Republicans are "trying to exercise a little bit of restraint, but I guess he is worried about free speech, debate and votes."
Hagan's North Carolina colleague, Republican Richard M. Burr, said he doesn't think Reid's move helps her re-election efforts.
"It's a pretty uncomfortable situation she's put herself in ," he said, calling its likely failure "so predictable."
Hagan's re-election is rated a Tossup by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
The 2014 strategy on the sportsmen's bill differs from a 2012 effort, in which legislation from then-in-cycle Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., was scheduled prior to the election for a vote in the lame duck. Tester got credit from local media, but he avoided any chance of a legislative belly flop on the floor.
Still, sources on the ground said the issue didn't seem to have much resonance in North Carolina race yet. Republican challenger Thom Tillis' campaign was pointing to the differences in the two records on gun issues, including Hagan's "F" rating from the National Rifle Association, but it wasn't clear what kind of response to the sportsmen's bill there might be.
The standoff was frustrating to other senators hoping to legislate.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she has an amendment with New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen that would give disabled veterans lifetime National Parks passes for hunting, fishing and recreation. She predicted it would probably get accepted if they were allowed to offer it.
"This really needs to stop. We need a return to regular order,” Collins said.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., wasn't surprised by Reid's move, but said he doesn’t understand who is helped by blocking amendments.
"That is the part that I can’t figure," Corker said. “I would think he is hurting more of his members than he is helping by keeping them from having to vote on amendments. We've all speculated. We know he is solely doing it the election to keep people from taking votes. But none of us can figure how it's really helping, and that over time he is hurting more people than he's helping."
Some of the amendments might appeal to Democrats from conservative-leaning states on the 2014 ballot, and others might even pass if they were voted on without requiring a 60-vote supermajority.
Sen. Mark Pryor, who is in one of this year's closest races, didn't sound particularly concerned about the votes themselves.
"I've voted on some of those amendments before, either for or against," the Arkansas Democrat said. "As a senator, you have the right of unlimited debate and the right of unlimited amendment. You know, that's the way it works. But, at the same time you need the internal discipline around here in both those ways — in the debate and on the amendments to make sure that we can be productive, and it's been hard recently."
A similar fight over amendments doomed a bipartisan energy efficiency bill sponsored by Shaheen and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio. The collapse of the energy efficiency measure prompted Democrats to charge that Republicans were refusing to make any agreement in an effort to help Shaheen's 2014 challenger, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott P. Brown.
Alexis Levinson and Hannah Hess contributed to this report.