When Congress returns from its recess, the battle over gun control will focus on a single issue: expanded background checks. And for now, the odds seem stacked against background checks moving forward in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is expected to introduce a modified gun control bill in April for a full vote on the floor. Provisions about semi-automatic weapon and high-capacity magazine clips won’t be part of the bill (although senators will be allowed to propose them as amendments).
But the contentious issue of background checks will be a central part of the legislation. Three other measures in the bill are expected to have an easier time in the Senate: harsher laws on illegal “straw purchases" of guns; more funds for mental health measures; and more funds for school safety.
Before Reid left for the Senate’s recess period for Passover and Easter, he vowed that broader background checks would remain in the proposed gun control bill.
“I want to be clear: In order to be effective, any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks,” Reid said on March 23.
Congress is back in business on April 8, and Reid’s commitment to keeping background checks in the bill will be tested in the coming weeks. A bipartisan group of four senators couldn’t agree on a background check measure that included mandatory registration of private transactions.
Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma was part of that group, but he objected to plans that would require permanent records of private transactions, over fears of creating a “national gun registry.”
The three other senators, Chuck Schumer, Mark Kirk, and Joe Manchin, have been trying to find a compromise that would attract Republican support. One rumored compromise would include different rules for online gun sales and transactions involving rural areas.
In late March, The Hill reported that Senator John McCain could be enlisted to marshal Republican support if a compromise solution is reached.
Dean Heller, a senator from Nevada, would be another potential ally, but he’s also on record opposing any permanent record-keeping for private gun sales.
The approval of at least 10 Republicans is crucial because Reid will need 60 votes in the Senate to have a successful cloture vote to avoid a filibuster.
A group of Republican senators including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Jim Inhofe have said they will filibuster “any legislation that infringe[s] on the American people's constitutional right to bear arms."
For now, the group’s effort is expected to be a silent filibuster: a procedural motion that will force Reid to get 60 votes in the Senate to bring the law to a vote.
In March, Paul took advantage of a Democratic procedural mistake to take over the Senate floor for nearly 13 hours in an old-fashioned talking filibuster, with help from Cruz, Rubio, and other senators.
That isn’t expected to happen in the gun control debate.
Another factor is the presence of moderate Democrats from conservative states in the process. There’s already been a backlash from some Democrats about New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign to force the gun control issue.
“I do not need someone from New York City to tell me how to handle crime in our state. I know that we can go after and prosecute criminals without the need to infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding North Dakotans,” said Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota in a statement.
At least six Democratic senators are on record opposing expanded gun control measures, and 21 Senate seats will be up for grabs in 2014.
And even if a gun control bill can pass through the Senate with background checks intact, it still needs to be approved by the Republican-controlled House.
Scott Bomboy is editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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