By Russell Berman - 04/05/13 09:00 AM EDT
Republican lawmakers have kept their distance from the National Rifle Association (NRA) during the debate over gun laws in Congress, even as many have echoed the powerful lobby’s arguments against President Obama’s agenda.
While polls suggest more than half the country approves of the NRA, the aggressive approach by its outspoken vice president, Wayne LaPierre, has led to some criticism of the group — and claims by some Republicans that they could be hurt by association.
“The NRA has made it more difficult for members to vote with them based on their statements,” said former Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), a centrist Republican who received an “F” rating from the group when he served in the House. “They look so stubborn, so out of touch with the mood of the country.”
Republicans leading the charge against the president’s gun-control proposals are not touting their alliance with the NRA, and they have not endorsed LaPierre’s call for Congress to appropriate funds to put armed guards in schools across the country. But they have built a bulwark against efforts by gun-control advocates to win far-reaching changes to gun laws, despite the national shock of the Newtown, Conn. elementary school killings that left 20 six- and seven-year-olds dead.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) last week won majority support in the Senate for his non-binding budget amendment calling for any gun legislation to require a two-thirds majority for passage. He received the NRA’s endorsement in 2010 and, along with Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), he is vowing to try to block gun legislation from even coming to the Senate floor.
“While they certainly wind up on the same side of the aisle a lot of the time, the senator comes at this from both a constitutional and public safety perspective,” Lee spokesman Brian Phillips said. “It’s not like he’s been sitting down and reading NRA materials to determine what he believes. He knows what he believes.”
Phillips said he did not know whether Lee backed LaPierre’s proposal for federally funded guards in every school. “To the extent that they can drive attention to an issue, that’s helpful,” he said.
The NRA is a popular ally for Republicans and many Democrats during campaign season, when candidates in rural and conservative districts vie for the endorsement of the organization’s political arm. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appeared with LaPierre at an event touting the opening of a new shooting range in Nevada during his reelection campaign in 2010. The gun group contributed about $650,000 to 261 House and Senate candidates in 2012, with 90 percent going to Republicans, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.
The organization has taken a public relations hit, however, in the months since the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. LaPierre drew criticism from both Democrats and Republicans for a defiant speech he delivered weeks after the shooting, during which he rejected calls for new gun restrictions, made his proposal for armed guards in schools and blamed the media and Hollywood for violence in American culture.
Polls taken since the shooting and after LaPierre’s public statement have shown a dip in the NRA’s public image, although a majority of respondents, 54 percent, still held a favorable opinion of the group in a late-December Gallup survey.
Vice President Biden has argued that the politics of gun control have changed in the nearly two decades since Congress passed an assault weapons ban, which was blamed in part for the Democrats’ loss of their majorities in the House and Senate in 1994. Yet with the passage of any new gun restrictions in doubt, Biden’s analysis could prove erroneous.
“If it’s changed, it’s changed slightly,” said Shays, who is now at the University of New Haven after losing a bid for the Republican nomination for Senate in Connecticut last year.
While Democrats will eye the fallout in a general election matchup, Republicans now worry about a primary challenge if they support gun-control measures, Shays said. “In the end, I think members will do real calculation on whether this vote will cost them the election,” he said.
Although Republicans are not lining up to stand shoulder to shoulder with LaPierre, the NRA’s vaunted lobbying influence, now being tested by a group financed by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), has always been strongest behind the scenes.
The chief argument from Republicans opposed to a universal background check system — that it would lead to a national gun registry — is the same one the NRA has made in its public statements and advertisements.
Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) received an endorsement and $9,900 in total donations from the NRA in 2012, tied for the most the group gave to any House Republican in that election. In a statement to The Hill, Renacci made no mention of the NRA. He said he was “heartbroken” by the tragedy at Sandy Hook, but that when it came to gun legislation, “any restrictions on our Second Amendment rights must be narrowly tailored and meet the strictest standard of scrutiny our judiciary can apply.”
Renacci spokesman Shawn Ryan noted that the NRA endorsed his opponent during a congressional race in 2010 but that the congressman’s views on the Second Amendment are the same now as then. “While Jim is proud to have earned the support of the NRA in 2012, his strong belief in the Second Amendment is clearly independent of the decisions made by the NRA,” Ryan said. “Jim’s lawmaking decisions are guided by the Constitution, his conscience and his constituents – not by special interest groups.”
A spokesman for the NRA did not respond to a request for comment.