Is Gun Control Almost Finished, or Is It Barely Getting Started?

Advocates felt optimistic last week after a bipartisan deal on background checks. Now reality is starting to set back in.
Gary Cameron/Reuters

Democrats were feeling pretty good last week after inking a bipartisan agreement on sweeping background checks for gun purchases and getting the votes to begin a Senate debate on new gun restrictions. But now they return to the Capitol at just the beginning of what will be a long, tough road to turn gun legislation into law.

First, the bill must survive this week's planned debate in the Senate. And it's still unclear whether the pact struck by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to expand background checks has the 60 votes needed to pass. Indeed, it looks like it might not.

"Just because your leadoff hitter is on base in the first inning doesn't mean you won the game," a GOP Senate leadership aide said. "It just means your leadoff hitter's on first base."

Republicans will demand full consideration of their amendments and are prepared for a fight. And should the bill make it through what is sure to be an emotional and messy floor debate, it might fall short when the roll is called. Two Democrats, Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, voted against even starting debate on the measure. And of the 16 Republicans who voted with Democrats to start debate, about half will not support the bill, while a half-dozen others have not made up their minds.

Democrats, for their part, continue to argue that the bill won't rise or fall on a few moderate Democrats -- they'll get the votes they need, Dems argue -- but rather on whether Republicans are willing to block background checks, a provision that enjoys wide public support. "This is going to be a background-check bill," a Senate Democratic leadership aide said.

How much support the Senate bill can muster will have big implications for its prospects in the House.

"If it's an 80-plus vote in the Senate, it's going to be hard to slow down over here," a House GOP leadership aide said. On the other hand, if the bill barely makes it out of the upper chamber, "that's when we can really take a look at what the Senate sent us with a magnifying glass," the aide said.

That was the read-between-the-lines message from GOP House Speaker John Boehner last week when he said, "I fully expect that the House will act on legislation in the coming months. But I want this to go through regular order. And I want the Judiciary Committee to take the time to look at whatever the Senate does produce -- assuming they produce something -- and have members on both sides review that and make their determination."

The Judiciary Committee is one of the most conservative panels in the House. So if its lawmakers are given time and space, their gun bill would likely end up looking much different than whatever the Senate might pass. The committee, an aide said, would be given a lot of direction by House Republicans. And while a vocal minority are opposed to any new gun regulations, there is support in the Republican conference for some kind of reform, the aide said.

Another GOP leadership aide put it this way: "If a bill emerges from the Senate, the House will still have its say."

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Chris Frates is a correspondent (lobbying) for National Journal.

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