Change of Subject
April 24, 2013
Before we move off the issue of gun control — and it's dead for now, believe me, for reasons this column will make clear — let's take a close look at just how something as popular as expanded background checks failed to pass the U.S. Senate last week.
The facile shorthand is that the Republican minority took advantage of the sometimes baffling rules of the Senate to once again thwart the basic concept of majority rule.
After all, the background-check measure, known informally as Manchin-Toomey after its co-sponsors, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, ended up with 54 "yes" votes and only 46 "no" votes. But in these highly polarized days, as you're probably aware, nearly every proposal requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass.
If a bill doesn't have 60 votes, opponents will use the filibuster, the threat of a filibuster or simply a portentous "ahem!" to kill it.
But what happened with Manchin-Toomey was a bit more complicated than that. After the overall gun control bill emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month, the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey background-check amendment became the centerpiece because, gun control advocates hoped, it was modest enough to win supermajority support.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky agreed to streamline the process of dealing with Manchin-Toomey and other proposed amendments by dispensing with protracted debate, filibuster threats, cloture motions and the like and simply setting the threshold for passage at 60 votes.
Why didn't Reid, with his upper hand, try to negotiate or bring public pressure to bear for a simple-majority threshold?
First, such a request requires the unanimous consent of the Senate, and Republicans weren't going to agree to that, at least not on Democratic amendments. "We would have agreed to a simple majority on our amendments," McConnell's communication director Don Stewart told me Tuesday.
Second, such a request, if agreed to by the Republicans, would have opened the door for passage of bill-killing amendments favored by the GOP.
Here's what you may have missed in all the hand-wringing about how a 54-46 victory still translates into defeat: Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas introduced a National Rifle Association-backed amendment to "guarantee the rights of gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines and within other states," as his news release put it.
That proposal — simply put, to gut more restrictive concealed-carry laws such as those in New York and proposed for Illinois and make gun permits as portable as driver's licenses — got 57 votes, including the votes of 13 Democrats. Illinois' Mark Kirk was the lone Republican to oppose the amendment.
And an amendment proposed by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley to replace the whole bill with an "alternative" but weaker plan to bolster the background-check system and toughen penalties for gun crimes got 52 votes.
It's hard to know how many of those votes were symbolic and might have changed were there a 50-vote threshold, but it's easy to see that majority rule cuts both ways when it comes to gun control. Even more sobering for those hoping for greater restrictions was that neither magazine-size limits nor an assault weapons ban received majority support in the Senate.
So the third reason that Reid and the Democrats didn't make more of a fuss about the amendment votes was that there was no way the final bill was going to survive a filibuster if the amendments couldn't get 60 votes in the first place.
President Barack Obama said last week's defeat was just "round one" and that "this effort is not over."
But it is over. I'm calling this fight. As all this maneuvering suggests, the partisan divide is too sharp, the legislative rules too daunting and the energy of gun-rights supporters too sustained to hope to change the outcome in this Congress.
Comment on this column at chicagotribune.com/zorn.
Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC