By Alexander Bolton - 02/06/13 10:00 AM EST
Senate Democrats are facing a major dilemma on how hard they should push for an assault weapons ban, a sensitive topic for vulnerable centrists who are running for reelection next year.
Gun control advocates are scrutinizing Senate Democrats’ strategy for implementing President Obama’s proposals for reducing gun violence, and a watered-down effort would likely prompt a backlash from the party’s liberal base.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has promised to give Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the lead sponsor of the assault weapons ban, a chance to offer her proposal on the floor.
But controversial amendments usually need 60 votes on the Senate floor to be added to pending legislation. Experts following the gun violence debate say an assault weapons ban offered as an amendment on the floor would have virtually no chance of passing.
“The best strategy would be to include it in the base bill itself. If it’s just offered as a floor amendment it’s likely to fail, because it’s a stand-alone provision and Republicans will filibuster and it will be almost impossible for Democrats to get 60 votes,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, in reference to the assault weapons ban and the proposed limit on high-capacity clips.
“The base bill would be better because it is part of an entire package and it would be considered along with other provisions. If you pull it out as a stand-alone provision, it’s an easier target for opponents,” he said.
Feinstein, a member of the Judiciary Committee, has yet to make up her mind about whether she will offer her proposal as an amendment to any legislation that receives a mark-up in committee.
“I haven’t made that decision yet,” she said. “We haven’t had the hearing yet and I’m not going to make that decision until after the hearing.”
Feinstein will hold her own hearing on gun violence in the Judiciary Committee the week of Feb. 25, according to Democratic aides.
It’s somewhat surprising that Feinstein would consider not offering her proposal in committee. It is co-sponsored by eight of the 10 Democrats on the panel, where it would only need a majority vote to secure approval.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has not co-sponsored Feinstein’s bill, but he voted for the federal assault weapons ban in 1994 and 2004. The other Democrat who has not co-sponsored the measure is Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).
But Feinstein could be leery of putting her Democratic colleagues in a tough political position. Seeking a vote in committee could lead to headlines such as “Democrats help defeat assault weapons ban bill.”
Reid has declined to endorse Feinstein’s measure, and he worked to defeat renewal of the assault weapons ban in 2009. Democratic senators in conservative states running for reelection in 2014, including Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), have also balked at it.
If gun violence legislation came from the Judiciary Committee to the Senate floor with the assault weapons ban and the prohibition on high-capacity clips in it, opponents would have a tougher time defeating those controversial provisions.
Democrats could be faced with a tough vote if they have to decide to advance or block a comprehensive gun violence bill that includes the assault weapons ban.
Reid is not eager to press his centrist colleagues to take a politically dangerous vote to pass gun control measures if they will only stall in the House.
“The logic of Senate Republicans and some Senate Democrats is, ‘If the House won’t pick it up, much less pass it, why would we stick our necks out?’ ” said a strategist tracking the Senate debate.
The political clout of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the nation’s capital is well known, but gun control advocates have begun to flex their muscle in recent months.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), one of the nation’s most prominent advocates for gun curbs, sent a warning to Democrats in the fall when his Independence PAC helped defeat veteran Democratic Rep. Joe Baca (Calif.), who was supported by the NRA.
Bloomberg is unlikely to be shy if Senate Democrats do not go all out to reinstate the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. Former President George W. Bush backed the reinstatement of the ban, but like Obama in his first term, he did not press Congress to act.
Obama will huddle with Senate Democrats at their retreat in Annapolis, Md., on Wednesday.
Gun control supporters are funding a new advertising campaign to pressure some Democrats.
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has run newspaper ads ripping Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) for calling Obama’s gun control agenda “extreme.” And last month, it released a video publicizing Rep. John Barrow’s (D-Ga.) tight relationship with the NRA.
Ladd Everitt, the coalition’s spokesman, said gun control activists will be happy if Congress passes legislation requiring universal background checks for gun buyers and cracks down on gun trafficking.
But he said Democrats who vote against the assault weapons ban and limits on high-capacity ammunition will not get a free pass.
“Let’s make no mistake here. The era of no accountability is over,” he said.
Leahy has yet to decide his strategy for moving gun violence legislation through the committee. He could mark up legislation requiring universal background checks, helping law enforcement combat trafficking and the prohibiting the sale and manufacture of assault weapons as separate bills.
Leahy, who has a “C” rating from the NRA, has sponsored a bill to help law enforcement prosecute straw purchasers of firearms, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is working on legislation to expand background checks, according to a Democratic aide.
Schumer, who helped write the 1994 assault weapons ban legislation, last month said background checks are the “sweet spot” for gun safety.
Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said Democrats should not be afraid to support the assault weapons ban.
“Polls taken more than a month after the shootings in Newtown show public support for the assault weapons ban above 50 percent. If senators want to support that, they’re on pretty safe ground,” he said.