The Incredibly Low Bar for Success in Our Broken Senate

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Only two things have really changed in the push by Senate Democrats to enact a slate of new gun legislation. The first is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saved a little face. The second is that a vote isn't coming until April. What hasn't changed is that the Senate is a broken institution.

Earlier this week, we noted that Reid was planning to slice the assault weapons ban off of the main package the Senate would consider for a vote. At the time, reporting suggested that the ban would be an amendment to the package, a move taken so that it could be voted on — and fail — without dooming the other components. "The assault weapons ban is dead!" reported various outlets, most of whom laid the blame at Reid's feet.

Last night, Reid put the package on the calendar for a vote after the Senate's two-week recess. "The assault weapons ban is not dead yet!" reported various outlets, because it was included in the package. As an amendment. As Reid said all along. But by releasing an affirmative statement on the move — "I will ensure that a ban on assault weapons, limits to high-capacity magazines, and mental health provisions receive votes" — Reid generated a little good will.

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The most interesting component of this remains how Reid responds to the new mechanics of the old institution. This is a Democrat, leading a majority of 53 Democrats and two independents, who described his rationale for moving the ban as an amendment as follows.

“I’m not going to try to put something on the floor that won’t succeed,” Reid said. “I want something that will succeed. I think the worst of all worlds would be to bring something to the floor and it dies there.”

It's an understandable sentiment. But the Senate majority leader's job isn't just to bring an item to the floor. It's to corral the votes to ensure it passes. In a 60-vote world, 55 votes isn't enough. So Reid doesn't try. The Senate floor isn't a place for argument and negotiation, it's a place to put legislation on a scale and see if the needle moves past 59. To which Harry Reid shrugs.

Vice President Joe Biden told NPR yesterday that he's not giving up so easily.

“I am still pushing that it pass. We are still pushing that it pass,” Biden told NPR. “The same thing was told to me when the first assault weapons ban in 1994 was attached to the Biden Crime bill; that it couldn’t possibly pass. It was declared dead several times…. And, so, I haven’t given up on this.”

There are two weeks during which those five extra votes could be found. That's not an easy task, but with the weight of the White House behind the effort and Reid negotiating with Republicans, it's not impossible. After all, Reid is hoping Democrats and Republicans can get a deal on background checks, an effort that has been hobbled by debate over whether or not records of those checks would be kept. If the Senate can work out a deal on that issue — an issue that made it into the complete package despite being contentious — maybe Reid and Biden could force an agreement on the ban.

It doesn't look like that's going to happen. Reid's job is already done.

That's the new line Reid is expected to cross, the one from his statement. It's the line drawn by the president himself in the State of the Union. Bring it to a vote. And with that task done, the Senate will take two weeks off.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.