By Alexander Bolton - 01/17/13 10:00 AM EST
The push for gun control puts Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a tough political spot.
Reid’s job is to help move President Obama’s agenda through the upper chamber, but he must also protect his five-seat Senate majority, and gun-rights groups are threatening to go after vulnerable Senate Democrats who back the president’s calls for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Some Democrats think passage of the 1994 assault-weapons ban was a reason they lost control of the Senate and the House later that year.
Already, a coalition of 36 groups supporting gun owners’ rights has formed to retaliate against any Democratic senator who votes for restrictions on gun and ammo sales.
Paul Valone, president of Grassroots North Carolina, a member of the coalition, said if Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) votes for gun-control legislation, “we’ll go after her with both barrels.”
Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, another member of the coalition, said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) would face an angry backlash if he voted for gun control.
Some gun-rights advocates in Montana still have not forgiven Baucus for backing the 1994 federal assault-weapons ban. That law expired in 2004.
“There’s no confusion on Max’s part what heavy sledding he would have in 2014 if he voted for gun control now,” said Marbut.
Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) also have tough races next year in states that voted for Romney.
The NRA has given vulnerable Senate Democrats a mix of scores on gun-related votes. It awarded Baucus the highest score, an A-plus. Johnson received an A, Landrieu a C, Pryor a C-minus and Hagan an F.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who has an A rating from the NRA, could also face a tough vote. Obama narrowly carried the state in November, but Democratic turnout will be lower in the midterm elections, when Warner is on the ballot.
Reid said Wednesday he will bring legislation addressing gun violence — verbiage Democrats have adopted as more politically palatable than “gun control” — to the Senate floor. But Reid has balked at the prospect of making a strong push on a new federal assault-weapons ban because it would be a political liability and he doubts the House would pass it.
“Let’s be realistic,” Reid recently told PBS’s “Nevada Week in Review.” “In the Senate, we’re going to do what we think can get through the House, and I’m not going to go through a bunch of gyrations just to say we’ve done something. If we’re really legislators, the purpose of it is to pass legislation.”
Reid made no mention of proposals to ban new assault weapons or limit high-capacity clips after Obama unveiled them Wednesday.
“I thank the president’s task force for its thoughtful recommendations,” he said in a statement. “I am committed to ensuring that the Senate will consider legislation that addresses gun violence and other aspects of violence in our society early this year.”
Reid’s advisers say the murder of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has changed the political landscape and Reid now views gun violence from a different perspective. But Reid himself has stopped well short of the specific calls for reform made by Democratic colleagues in heavily populated states, such as Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Frank Lautenberg (N.J.).
There is growing pressure on the Senate to act first on gun violence. Feinstein, a senior and influential member of the Senate Democratic Conference, has pledged to introduce an assault-weapons ban as soon as the Senate starts the regular session of the 113th Congress. Lautenberg is eagerly pushing a measure to ban high-capacity magazines.
House Republicans are in less of a rush to act.
Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said Wednesday that House committees would “review” the president’s recommendations.
“And if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that,” Steel said.
If Reid tries to protect endangered Democratic incumbents from voting on gun-control measures, he could be helped by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), which has jurisdiction over the issue. Leahy has a history of support for gun owners’ rights and has called for a practical approach to new legislation.
Senate sources believe gun-violence legislation will come up for a vote in the Senate, but the question is whether an assault-weapons ban or curb on high-capacity ammunition will be included in the base bill or offered as amendments to the legislation. Leahy will decide that.
It would be much easier for Baucus, Hagan and other vulnerable Democrats to vote against gun-control measures if they are amendments instead of part of the main bill.
Schumer, a proponent of gun control who is also responsible for Democrats’ policy and message strategy on the Senate floor, suggested Wednesday that expanded background checks would be the main component of a bill.
“If you look at the combination of likelihood of passage and effectiveness of curbing gun crime, universal background checks is at the sweet spot,” he said in a statement. “We’re glad the president put such emphasis on it, and we look forward to working with him on this and other proposals to make our nation safer from the scourge of gun violence.”
Some Republican aides think Reid persuaded Leahy to stay on as chairman of the Judiciary Committee and forgo the gavel of the Appropriations panel because he did not want to clash with Feinstein on gun control. Feinstein would have taken over the top spot on Judiciary if Leahy moved.
Feinstein, however, does not appear to suspect any secret talks to keep her out of the chairmanship, and there is no evidence to support the GOP theory.