All Obama Asked For on Gun Control Was a Vote—Will He Even Get That?

Despite a clear emotional investment, the president's demands for legislation have been reasonably modest. They're in limbo nonetheless.
President Obama watches as the families of children killed in Sandy Hook board Air Force One at Bradley Air Force Base in Connecticut. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Never in his tenure in office has President Obama displayed as much sustained emotional attachment to any issue as gun control. He has repeatedly called the day of the Newtown massacre the worst of his presidency, and in the months since he's spent stacks and stacks of political capital on the matter, delaying matters like immigration and tax reform, which might pay off more for him politically. And he's jetted around the country, giving speech after speech exhorting his supporters to back new gun laws -- most recently in Hartford, Connecticut on Monday.

What's remarkable, however, is how modest his actual demands have been. While the more aggressive reform advocates, like Michael Bloomberg and Dianne Feinstein, have pushed for measures like an assault-weapons ban, Obama has largely avoided specifics. And the impassioned climax of his State of the Union speech -- what James Fallows called "the one rhetorically and emotionally powerful stretch of his presentation" -- was his demand not for Congress to pass anything, but simply for them to cast a ballot on it:

Hadiya [Pendleton]'s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.

Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.

The families of Newtown deserve a vote.

The families of Aurora deserve a vote.

The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence -- they deserve a simple vote.

The modesty is partly a nod to political reality: Obama must have known from the start that there were serious limits on how sweeping any reforms would get. The assault-weapons ban was never going to happen. Instead, the president's Democratic allies focused on what looked like a much more feasible goal: expanded background checks, which would cover guns sold at guns shows and over the Internet, along with proposals on school safety and gun trafficking.

But will Obama even get the vote on those that he demanded? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that he's scheduling a cloture vote for Thursday. But a bloc of Republicans has vowed to filibuster the bill, refusing to even let it come to the floor for an up-or-down vote. Reid himself said he didn't know whether he had the votes for the package or not, though Huffington Post did a whip count and thinks he does. It's an impressive act of political chutzpah -- defying the emotional plea of the State of the Union, they seek to avoid even that vote.

Luckily for Reid, and by extension for Obama, there seems to be some division in Republican ranks over the threat, with the sides mirroring an emerging cleft within the Senate GOP caucus. On the pro-filibuster side are some of the more fiery young leaders of the party: Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. On the other side are the likes of Tom Coburn and John McCain. Reid only needs five Republicans to vote with him on cloture to break the filibuster, though.

Perhaps the filibuster threat will come to naught -- though Paul, at least, has shown a willingness to follow through on his threats, the tide seemed to be turning against the Paul group Tuesday. But this is yet another chance to consider the filibuster's outsize role in Senate business these days. An overwhelming majority of Americans back expanded background checks, despite an NRA campaign to convince people that this will necessarily involve a national gun registry. (In fact, there seems to be little support for such a registry, even among Democrats.) And yet it would take just a few senators to prevent legislation introducing such checks from even reaching the Senate floor for a vote. Earlier this week, Reid made some noise about rule-change, once again, but remember: Democrats had a solid shot at real filibuster reform already and decided to pass.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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