By Alexander Bolton - 04/21/13 10:00 AM EDT
Democrats in Congress have quickly changed the subject from gun control to immigration reform and are relieved to be moving past an issue that divided them to more solid political ground.
The political momentum from the resounding victories of Election Day stalled earlier in the week when Republicans punched out all three pillars of Obama’s gun-control agenda.
“I think Democrats are kind of licking their wounds after losing on the gun debate and will probably be pushing real hard to win on immigration,” said David Di Martino, a Democratic strategist.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) grumbled that Democratic leaders are so eager to move on to immigration reform they barely gave Republicans a chance to read the bill.
“The majority is rushing us to read and analyze the bill. It’s just under 900 pages and it tackles some very important issues,” he said. “Most members and staff on this committee have not read the bill in its entirety before this hearing.”
Until the tragic shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Democrats never envisioned gun-control would be the first major issue out of the gate this year. The subject barely came up on the campaign trail in 2012.
While the White House officials and Democratic leaders claimed the politics of gun control had changed, vulnerable incumbents saw it as a dangerous issue in rural states.
Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska), one of the Democrats facing a difficult re-election, said expanded background checks would have undermined Alaska values and fundamental rights.
Immigration reform is a much stronger issue for them as Hispanic voters make up the fastest-growing major electoral bloc.
“From a tactical political perspective it’s much better ground for Democrats,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist.
Now the political danger looms over Republicans, who could risk a backlash from conservatives by embracing a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants or alienate Hispanic voters by blocking it.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who negotiated with Democrats to craft a comprehensive immigration reform bill, warned his fellow Republicans of the stakes.
“Republicans have got to compete for the Hispanic voter,” he said. “It puts us on a level where we can compete in the battle of ideas.
“Right now we’re not competitive because this issue has got to be resolved in the minds of our citizens who feel this is a vitally important issue,” he added.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pulled the gun-control package off the Senate floor with little prior notice while much of the Capitol press corps was attending a rollout of the immigration reform bill hosted by Reid’s top deputies.
Democratic leaders vowed Wednesday the battle over expanding background checks for gun sales had only just begun, but by Friday it was already a distant memory.
Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the second- and third-ranking members of the Democratic leadership, hosted a press conference Thursday that was staged almost as a campaign rally, along with other members of the Senate’s Gang of Eight.
The crowd packed one of the biggest hearing rooms in the Dirksen office building and included leaders from across the political spectrum, including Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, and Bruce Josten, a senior official at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Schumer said immigration reform would follow a very different path than the gun-control legislation.
“I believe that this is ours to lose,” Schumer said. “I don’t think it’s at all like gun-control, frankly, because I think that the product we’re starting out with has broader support on a broader basis than guns did both in the Senate and in the country.”
Immigration reform will occupy the Senate’s attention in May and June. The Judiciary Committee will mark up the legislation beginning the first week in May and Reid will bring it to the floor no later than June.
Schumer said in an interview Friday that the Senate would resume the gun-control debate but he does not know when.
“I think the tides are turning on gun control,” he said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of the chief proponents of stricter regulations for firearms, said Reid always planned to pivot quickly to immigration reform.
“This is a huge issue that people have wanted the institution to take action on for a substantial period of time now,” she said of immigration reform.
Democrats feel confident of success on immigration reform because they have more cooperation from Republicans than they ever did on gun control. Also, there is no special-interest group with as much influence as the National Rifle Association staunchly opposed to it.
Democratic have been haunted by the question of whether they waited too long to push their gun-violence package onto the floor. They don’t want to let immigration reform twist in the wind.
“We must act deliberately and without delay. Millions of people — millions of Americans — are depending on us,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).