McConnell quashes Senate effort on guns

McConnell quashes Senate effort on guns
© Greg Nash

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans give Barr vote of confidence Democrats block two Senate abortion bills VA could lead way for nation on lower drug pricing MORE (R-Ky.) on Thursday cut the legs out from a bipartisan effort to keep suspected terrorists from buying guns.

In doing so, McConnell, a master of the Senate’s arcane rules, provided cover for vulnerable Republicans who wanted to be seen as supporting the effort but did not want to cross the National Rifle Association.

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“The scenario that Sen. McConnell set up was textbook McConnell,” said Brian Darling, a former Senate Republican aide.

McConnell had promised a vote this week to Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response | Top official warns virus appears inevitable in US | Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick MORE (R-Maine) on her bipartisan measure barring people on two terrorist watchlists from buying guns or explosives.

But what he scheduled was not what she had in mind.

Instead of setting up a vote to add the Collins legislation to the pending appropriations bill on the Senate floor, McConnell scheduled a vote to discard it.

The Collins bill survived that test in a 46-52 vote, but it fell far short of winning 60 votes, the threshold necessary to overcome procedural hurdles.

The result allows Republicans to argue that no other action is necessary.

“It didn’t have sixty votes. That’s what a motion to table does. It demonstrates where the votes are,” said Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman.

McConnell also set up a vote on an alternative sponsored by Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonWhistleblower retaliation: Stop confusing unlawful attacks with politics Congress looks to strengthen hand in State Department following impeachment Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony MORE (R-Wis.) that was not opposed by the NRA.

The last-minute measure had no chance of passing the Senate but gave political cover for Johnson and Republican Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain says Steyer should drop out: 'I hate that guy' Sanders says idea he can't work with Republicans is 'total nonsense' GOP casts Sanders as 2020 boogeyman MORE (Ariz.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way GOP senators offering bill to cement business provision in Trump tax law Mnuchin defends Treasury regulations on GOP tax law MORE (Ohio), Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrJohn Ratcliffe back under consideration by Trump for top intel job The Hill's Morning Report - Can Sanders be stopped? Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick MORE (N.C.), Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSenate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Booker, Merkley propose federal facial recognition moratorium GOP senators defend Sondland, Vindman ousters: They weren't 'loyal' MORE (Mo.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Energy: Critics pile on Trump plan to roll back major environmental law | Pick for Interior No. 2 official confirmed | JPMorgan Chase to stop loans for fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic MacGregor confirmed as Interior deputy chief GOP casts Sanders as 2020 boogeyman MORE (Fla.), who are all in challenging reelection races this fall.

All six voted against the Collins bill but in favor of the Johnson measure.

Sponsors of the Collins bill say their measure could have passed if McConnell had set up a positive vote to add it to the bill instead of a negative vote to kill it and if he had offered it cleanly without a competing side-by-side alternative.

“If you put this one up for cloture now, it’s got a good shot,” said Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane Flake70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents McSally ties Democratic rival Kelly to Sanders in new ad McSally launches 2020 campaign MORE (R-Ariz.), who backed the Collins measure.

He said the Johnson alternative gave his colleagues a reason to vote against his bill.

“There was a competing one,” he added. “There were two competing amendments. If there’s only ours left, then I suspect a number of those who voted for the other one will come over.”

Collins lamented that the way McConnell set up the votes made it tough to know how much support her proposal could have garnered had it been offered cleanly.

“That’ll be a question I’ll never know the answer to,” she said when asked how her amendment would have done had the Johnson amendment not been there to provide political cover.

When asked if she wanted to have another vote on the proposal, Collins said, “Of course,” just before taking an elevator down to the Capitol basement.

The maneuver allowed McConnell to slip out of a tough spot.

Pressure on Congress to do something about guns has grown following a Senate filibuster last week and a sit-in on the House floor by Democrats that concluded hours before Thursday’s votes.

A CNN/ORC poll released Monday showed that 85 percent of respondents nationwide favored preventing people on government terrorism watchlists from buying guns.

By scheduling a vote on a motion to table, McConnell allowed a vote on Collins’s plan without giving it any real chance of passing, averting the wrath of Second Amendment advocates. 

Thursday’s votes effectively quashed the momentum behind the gun control measure that had built throughout the week.

Collins had teamed up with Flake, Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteLobbying World On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump GOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs MORE (R-N.H.), a vulnerable incumbent, and centrist Democratic Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn Heitkamp70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents Susan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama Pro-trade group launches media buy as Trump and Democrats near deal on new NAFTA MORE (N.D.) to offer a bipartisan bill after four other measures were rejected by the Senate on Monday.

More narrowly drawn than one of the measures that failed Monday, it would only have blocked gun purchases by people on the terrorist no-fly list and the so-called selectee list, who require additional screening at airports.

It also would have given people denied firearms a 14-day period to appeal the decision and would have reimbursed their attorney’s fees in the case of a successful appeal.

Democrats blasted McConnell for setting up what they derided as a “fake” vote on the Collins amendment.

“The Collins vote, which just took place a few minutes ago, was ... for lack of a better description, just a show vote,” said Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocratic insiders stay on the sidelines in 2020 race Harry Reid calls for end to all caucuses Reid pushes back on Sanders suggestion that a Democrat with plurality of delegates should be the nominee MORE (Nev.).

He called on McConnell to schedule a vote that would give colleagues a path to adding it to the underlying Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill.

“I hope now the Republican leader will bring the Collins compromise to a vote here on the floor — a real vote,” he said.

But that’s not likely to happen, at least anytime soon.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), an endangered incumbent who voted for the Collins amendment, said voting on the motion to discard it was sufficient.

“We just saw what the vote is. Is it your theory that the vote count would change?” he said. “There were 52 votes against tabling. If we had a cloture motion on this, it would get 52 votes.”