In just eight hours, the Senate will bring a bipartisan measure to expand background checks for firearm purchases to the floor. An aggressive lobbying campaign is underway, including personal appeals from Gabrielle Giffords directly to members, but as things stand this morning, proponents have a lot of work to do between now and 4 p.m.
It's important to clarify what, procedurally, is set to happen. At issue is the expanded background check compromise reached by Sen. Pat Toomey, a conservative Republican from Pennsylvania, and Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, which would close the gun-show loophole and apply background checks to online gun sales. The idea enjoys overwhelming public support across every imaginable demographic.
Republicans don't just intend to defeat the measure; they intend to filibuster it. I stress the distinction because today isn't a vote on the Toomey/Manchin amendment; it's a vote on whether to have a vote. Opponents who vote against the measure this afternoon are saying, in effect, "This idea is so offensive, we can't even allow an up-or-down vote to take place."
So, can proponents get the 60 votes needed to break the filibuster and allow the Senate to vote on a measure 90% of the country supports? At last count, they're several votes short. Indeed, yesterday, all of the news was discouraging. Take this press release from Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), for example.
"I believe very strongly that our current background check system needs strengthening and improving, particularly in areas that could keep guns out of the hands of felons and the mentally ill. At the same time, I cannot support legislation that infringes upon the Constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Despite the good faith efforts of Senators Manchin and Toomey, the onerous paperwork and expansion of federal power mandated in this legislation are too great of a concern. I believe that this legislation could lead to the creation of a national gun registry and puts additional burdens on law-abiding citizens. For these reasons, I cannot vote for this legislation," said Senator Dean Heller.
As a policy matter, this is gibberish. Indeed, it's so wrong, it's almost insulting. There's nothing unconstitutional about background checks -- indeed, background checks must be legally permissible, since they already exist without legal controversy. What's more, fearing the creation of a national gun registry from the proposal is idiotic, given that the legislation explicitly bans such a registry. The Toomey/Manchin language strengthens the prohibition against the very registry Heller is worried about.
Also note, as recently as February, Heller called background check expansion a "reasonable step forward." Since then, he saw a poll showing 87% of his constituents support the idea. Then Heller used a ridiculous rationale to oppose the popular policy.
Of course, it's not just Heller who's been irresponsible. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn't even meet with Newtown families yesterday.
And then there are a handful of red-state Democrats who aren't just prepared to oppose background-check expansion, but are also likely to side with Republicans on the filibuster. It's not enough to vote against it; they're prepared to join the GOP in denying the popular measure a vote at all.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), sounding very discouraged, said last night, "I honestly just didn't believe GOP Senators would turn their back on 90% of Americans. I was naive."
He has eight hours to change some of his colleagues' minds.