Lawmakers fear gun vote has poisoned the well on immigration reform

Some lawmakers fear the failure of gun-control legislation in the Senate could be a bad omen for immigration, deficit reduction and tax reform.

Backers of an expansion of background checks for gun purchases had hoped that the support of a key conservative, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), would win over Republicans and lead to more bipartisan deal-making. Instead, that agreement was defeated, leading to a round of bitter recriminations and vows of political retribution.

The outcome has left many questioning whether the coalitions behind immigration and tax reform are strong enough to overcome the ideological divide in Washington.

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“While the issues are [different like] tomatoes and asparagus, the point of the matter is it sets the tone. It sustains an atmosphere of not working together,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. “We have not moved closer in any respect in the past four years."

The push for an immigration reform is moving ahead after the unveiling this week of the Gang of Eight proposal in the Senate. The plan earned early praise from lawmakers and organizations across the political spectrum.

Republican and Democratic senators behind the immigration bill insisted that the failure of gun legislation would not sap their momentum.

“I think they’re different,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a senior Democrat deeply involved in both the immigration and gun issues. “There are many in the conservative movement who want to see an immigration bill done. There are very few in the conservative movement who want to see a gun bill done. That’s, I think, one of the differences.”

In a similar vein, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested this week that immigration reform made more political sense for Republicans than any restrictions on guns.

"The Hispanic community voted 70 percent for the Democrats," Pelosi told reporters, referencing last year's election. "That opens the space in people's minds on the Republican side that perhaps immigration reform was an issue whose time had come."

The bigger threat to the immigration bill might be political fallout from the Boston Marathon bombings, in which the two suspects identified by law enforcement were immigrants. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) mentioned the bombing Friday in the first hearing on the immigration bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In the case of tax reform, Democrats had already grown more pessimistic about the prospects for an agreement, despite the commitment of House Republican leaders to advancing legislation this year.

The Republican chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.), and the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), have worked closely together on the issue, but the two parties remain at loggerheads over whether tax reform should bring in more revenue to the government.

Democrats said the failure of the Senate to approve what supporters acknowledged was a modest gun-control bill did not bode well for tax reform.

“The Senate is blocking the gun bill, for heaven’s sake,” Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), another Ways and Means member, told The Hill.

“Now how can you get through a tax bill? Talk about something big. The gun bill’s a little tiny thing. Background checks. And you can’t get it through.”

Liberal Democrats have also grown wary of Baucus, who has been distancing himself from the national party as he gears up for a reelection bid next year. He voted against the Senate Democratic budget resolution and the gun-control bill.

Some top Democrats suggested that they were concerned that lawmakers might believe they could only support changes on so many hot-button issues, with immigration reform and same-sex marriage also moving to the forefront.

The co-author of the background check proposal, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) said Thursday that it would be “reasonable” to conclude that some conservative Democrats stretched too thin, and lacked the “energy” to sell rapid changes in their positions on gay marriage, immigration and guns at the same time.

“You have so many different three-dimensional chess games going on here that you wonder if it’s all about the chess, the moves — instead of the outcomes, who are the winners and losers in the process,” said Rep. John Larson (Conn.), a Ways and Means member and former part of House Democratic leadership.

Pascrell, for instance, thought the gun vote was a bad sign for immigration reform, an area where several top Republican lawmakers and conservative heavyweights want to make progress. Obama had ramped up his personal engagement with Republicans, including repeated phone calls and dinner dates, only to see all but four of them vote against expanding background checks in the Senate.

“The president in his anger yesterday was not only talking about guns and gun violence,” Pascrell told The Hill on Thursday, referring to Obama’s denunciation of the Senate vote. “But he was talking about general atmosphere. Basically, he’s tried to reach out, and he’s gotten kicked in the ass. That’s about it.”

Erik Wasson contributed.