By Alexander Bolton - 04/15/13 09:00 AM EDT
The Senate gun bill that seemed dead a week ago has gathered strong momentum as cracks have emerged in the Republican unity against it.
The shift in the political winds has been dramatic, and could help pass the most far-reaching gun control bill in nearly two decades.
Two Republicans, Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), broke the impasse by bucking their leadership.
A senior Democratic aide said a pivotal moment came on April 7 when McCain chastised his Republican colleagues in a CBS interview for threatening to block the gun bill from coming up for debate.
“The dam broke when McCain went on ‘Face the Nation,’ ” the aide said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has not been shy in criticizing McCain over the years, last week praised the Arizona Republican after the gun bill cleared a major procedural hurdle.
Earlier this month, McConnell and more than a dozen other GOP senators, including Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), vowed to filibuster the motion to proceed to the gun bill. At the time, it looked like gun control was slowly dying in the upper chamber.
But the tide turned when Toomey — who has an A rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA) — announced at a press conference with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that they had struck a deal to expand background checks to cover all sales at gun shows and over the Internet.
“I don’t consider criminal background checks to be gun control. I think it’s just common sense,” Toomey said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the prospects for gun legislation looked bleak at the start of last week.
“Days ago nobody thought we could move forward and we’re moving forward and I’m very, very hopeful about [this] week,” he said.
Democratic lawmakers said the families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims, who flew to Washington with President Obama aboard Air Force One last week, have had a big impact. That White House decision, coupled with Obama’s use of the bully pulpit, helped change the dynamic.
Sixteen Republicans voted Thursday to begin debate on the gun violence package, even though Reid and McConnell had yet to reach an agreement on which amendments would be considered.
“I’m very optimistic,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who co-authored legislation to crack down on the illegal trafficking of firearms, which has been included in the base bill. “I think it matters that the families of the victims from Connecticut came to Washington.”
Gun-control advocates have also been helped by CNN’s and MSNBC’s reporting on an al Qaeda propaganda video in which a spokesman for the terrorist group urges potential jihadists to buy assault weapons at gun shows where background checks are not required for non-licensed sellers. Conservatives argue the video is misleading because the spokesman claims fully automatic weapons can be purchased, which is not true. Military-style semi-automatic firearms are legal since the gun ban Congress passed expired in 2004.
Democrats and Republicans alike say the gun violence package still faces a tortuous path to Senate passage and dimmer prospects in the GOP-led House.
“I think it would be very difficult, but I don’t know for sure,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), one of the Republicans who voted to begin debate on the bill, when asked about its prospects for success.
The NRA, one of the most powerful interest groups in Washington, says it will score lawmakers for their votes on the Toomey-Manchin proposal to allow the broader package to move to a final vote. It remains to be seen if Toomey-Manchin will attract the necessary 60 votes. There are 55 senators who caucus with the Democrats, though a few from red states might defect. Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Susan Collins (Maine) are the only other Republicans who have publicly backed the measure.
Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, called the Toomey-Manchin deal “misguided” and warned the expansion of background checks would criminalize the private transfer of firearms by making the failure to comply with stricter regulations a felony.
Republican strategists acknowledge polls show the public favors expanded background checks by a 9-to-1 margin and that more people are paying attention to gun control.
“There’s no question that there’s been enormously greater attention to gun issues as a result of the horrible massacre, but I’m not convinced the fundamentals of politics have changed on this issue,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “Intensity matters in politics and on no issue is intensity more important than on guns.”
Republicans have been slow to follow Toomey’s lead. But the deal appears to have given cover to at least some politically vulnerable Democrats.
“This plan represents a common sense solution reached by two of my colleagues —one a Democrat, one a Republican — and I plan to support the bipartisan proposal,” said Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who is up for reelection next year.
For the first time, the NRA is being matched by equally well-funded opponents: Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Independence USA PAC, groups backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who has made gun control his top national priority.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns spent $12 million on a lobbying campaign to pressure lawmakers over the Easter recess and director Mark Glaze says “we will spend as necessary.” The group planned 80 events in target states over the weekend.
Reid is negotiating with McConnell to set up a vote on Toomey-Manchin and other amendments early this week.
Expanded background checks are the heart of Obama’s gun control agenda. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called them the “sweet spot” of the issue.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) thinks the political landscape for gun control has changed in recent days: “The trend line, in terms of people’s concern, is increasing.”
Former Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), who pushed gun control bills when he served in the House, said, “The only argument is the camel’s nose under the tent, that this is the first step to banning guns or confiscating guns. You can’t vote based on that argument because then you’re not going to vote for anything.”