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Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Charles Schumer on Capitol Hill this week.

Politics

Amid Sit-in Drama, Democratic Senators Maneuver to Pit the GOP Against the NRA

By backing the Collins compromise, Harry Reid and co. turn up the pressure on Republicans to find a way to keep terror suspects from buying guns.

House Democrats sat cross-legged on the House floor, snapped selfies with senators, and accepted kudos from President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for shutting down the U.S. House of Representatives in a sit-in aimed at highlighting inaction on background check and terror gap legislation. 

As the House representatives grabbed the spotlight with a demand for a vote in their chamber, Senator Susan Collins and bipartisan group of backers were more quietly engaged in the uphill task of finding the votes to pass her bill barring some terror suspects from buying guns.

The Maine Republican and a group of at least eight supporters have momentum and a mantle of bipartisanship for a compromise plan to bar some terror suspects from buying guns. On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced that he would support the bill, which lacks similar support from Republican leaders. The National Rifle Association has come out against it as well. 

Collins’s effort threw senior senators in both parties off script after four gun-related measures failed in party-line votes earlier this week in the wake of the Orlando, Florida, shooting that left 49 dead and scores injured. During that round of voting, members considered two amendments from each party, giving Democrats and Republicans alike a way to say they took action while avoiding the kind of up-or-down votes that make for more potent political attacks. With Collins’s bipartisan plan now moving forward, dodging just got harder, leaving senators with a choice between the sometimes-conflicting goals of passing legislation and positioning themselves for the November election.

The Policy Details

The Collins compromise plan, which will be treated as an amendment to a spending bill funding commerce, justice, and science-related programs, aims to find middle ground between a proposal by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and an NRA-backed alternative from Texas Senator John Cornyn, the Senate Republican Whip.

Collins’s plan gives the Attorney General power to bar gun sales to the approximately 28,000 people on a federal “selectee list,” which imposes extra screening before boarding an airplane, and another 81,000 or so people on the Transportation Security Administration’s no-fly list. Collins said only 2,700 people the lists are U.S. citizens, meaning relatively few Americans will see their ability to buy guns affected. The Collins plan also requires the FBI to be notified if a person who has been investigated for terrorism ties in the previous five years undergoes a federal background check to buy a gun. In those cases, the sale will go through if nothing in the buyer’s record prohibits him from gun ownership, but authorities may opt to place the gun purchaser back under surveillance.

In an effort to address due process worries, the Collins amendment sets up a procedure for people on the selectee and no-fly lists to appeal a gun ban. If an appeal is successful, the government must reimburse attorney costs.

The GOP’s Political Considerations

Collins’s effort highlights a desire by rank and file members in both parties to close or at least shrink the terror gap. “If we can’t pass this, it truly is a broken system up here,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is backing the bill.

Senator Kelly Ayotte, a first-term New Hampshire Republican, is co-sponsoring the proposal amid a tough reelection fight in which she has already faced ads attacking her past opposition to gun regulations. Backing a compromise amid the high-profile terror gap fight offers her a chance to “get well,” in political parlance. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who has offered his own compromise amendment, has similar goals, as his co-sponsorship of the background check expansion that failed in the Senate after Sandy Hook has not spared him from Democratic attacks.

The Collins plan offers potential political sanctuary to other vulnerable Republicans who are facing reelection fights and are taking heat for the gun positions, such as Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. So far, however, neither has publicly signaled support for their colleague’s proposed fix, perhaps out of fear of irking vocal gun-rights advocates whose backing they need in November.

“We have said that this is a matter of individual conscience,” Cornyn says.

Following critical statements by Gun Owners of America and the Heritage Foundation’s lobbying arm, the NRA announced its opposition to the Collins plan on Tuesday, calling the proposal unconstitutional.

Presaging that opposition, Cornyn had earlier said an interview that he is “concerned about the lack due process on the front end,” and that many GOP colleagues “share my concerns.”

Those concerns may help explain why the Collins plan has failed to gain many new GOP backers beyond the senators who initially joined Collins in announcing it.

But Cornyn says that neither he nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are pressuring Republican senators to reject the Collins plan. “We have said that this is a matter of individual conscience,” Cornyn told The Trace.

Republican leaders have indicated that they are eager to move on to a broader counterterrorism debate, ground that often favors the GOP. Cornyn said Tuesday that he wants to shift focus to an amendment ensuring the FBI can obtain electronic communication records for monitoring “lone wolf” attackers who lack direct connections to foreign terrorist organizations. That amendment narrowly failed Wednesday in a 58 to 38 vote.

At the same time, GOP leaders also want to keep their majority, which requires helping endangered members like Ayotte and Toomey avoid electoral damage. If the consciences of Johnson, Portman and other vulnerable Republicans don’t lead them to join the compromise push and that measure falls short of 60 votes, Republicans will be left to argue that Democrats didn’t want the Collins plan to pass. Reid’s statement today will make it harder to do that. 

The Democrats’ Political Considerations

It’s true: Democrats do benefit politically from having the terror gap open.

Democrats first forced a vote a version of Feinstein’s bill in the wake the December attack by a couple the FBI called “violent homegrown extremists,” in which 14 people were killed and wounded 22 in San Bernardino, California.

Democrats openly acknowledge that they hope forcing votes on measures like Feinstein’s puts Republicans in a political bind, making them chose between an uncompromising defense of gun rights and opposing terrorism. It’s a debate where Democrats have an advantage.

Democrats have battered Republicans rhetorically on the issue. “Ashamed & disgusted that the Senate works for the @NRA & not the majority of Americans,” Massachusetts progressive champion Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted.

“We want to say we broke the NRA,” says one Democratic leadership aide.

Senior Democrats were initially hesitant to give up such attack lines by aiding a Republican-led effort to pass a compromise measure. But Reid shifted the maneuvering into a new phase Wednesday when he announced that he will back the compromise.

Leadership aides in both parties said they believe that any version of Collins’s bill that reaches the floor will win most Democratic votes. “Democrats aren’t going to vote against gun reform,” said an aide to a top Democratic senator told The Trace.

Senate math allows Democrats to plausibly pin the fate of Collins’s effort on the GOP. Five Democrats signed on as original cosponsors of Collins’s proposal, but Democrats have only 46 of the Senate’s 100 votes. They accurately note that Collins must line up at least 10 Republicans in addition to the four GOP senators who signed on as co-sponsors of her proposal on Tuesday.

“How many Republicans would be willing to join her and buck the NRA?” Schumer said Tuesday. “We need a whole lot more than four or five.”

Democrats’ approach contains contradictions. Their leaders fault the Collins bill even as they attack Republicans for not backing it. But by noting flaws in the plan, they preserve the option of rallying around Feinstein’s plan later should the Collins plan falter. 

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest expressed worry Tuesday that Collins’s measure would “water down” Feinstein’s proposal (which would allow the Attorney General to block a gun purchase to anyone on the larger terror watch list), but said the administration might back it if “the assessment is that this would enhance the ability of our law enforcement professionals to keep us safe and prevent suspected terrorists from purchasing a gun.”

By framing the outcome of the Collins compromise bid as a question of whether Republicans will buck the NRA, Democrats hope to claim a win in either case. If Collins’s bill fails, Democrats will blame Republicans, and use it to attack those up for reelection. If it passes, Democrats will say they forced Republicans to finally defy the NRA. Declaring the vaunted gun group weakened might not help Democrats win Senate seats, but serves the party’s long-term interest.

“We want to say we broke the NRA,” one Democratic leadership aide said Tuesday.

 

[Photo: AP Photo/Alex Brandon]