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Could the Senate actually achieve something on gun control?

Despite the harsh realities of Senate arithmetic, there are signs that Democrats and even some of their Republican colleagues have been galvanised into making a serious attempt to get some kind of legislation passed

Eric Garcia
Thursday 26 May 2022 14:58 BST
Chuck Schumer on Capitol Hill
Chuck Schumer on Capitol Hill (Getty Images)

As the political fallout from the elementary school massacre in Uvalde spread, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer initially said that Democrats would not hold any votes on gun legislation in response to the murder of 19 children and two adults by a lone 18-year-old gunman. The Democratic leader said that “Americans can cast their vote in November” and said that Republican collaboration was “Unlikely – burnt in the past – but their hearts might see what has happened and join us, do the right thing.”

Mr Schumer’s words seemed resigned, a tacit admission that Democrats simply don’t have the votes to pass gun legislation. But then something happened that could be considered nothing short of miraculous: Senator Kyrsten Sinema, the taciturn Democrat from Arizona who seems to take pride in obstructing her party’s plans, spoke to reporters.

For those outside Washington, Ms Sinema almost never acknowledges the press when she heads to the Senate for votes. But Jake Sherman of Punchbowl News tweeted that when he asked Ms Sinema about the filibuster yesterday, she replied: “Despite the fact that there is always heated rhetoric here in DC, I do think that there’s a real opportunity to actually have conversations and try and do something.”

That is, of course, self-serving word salad. Plenty of the rhetoric about gun legislation came from outside Washington, while the chamber that sometimes calls itself the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body often seems perfectly content to allow the status quo to persist. And yet, there were just enough rumblings on the Senate side (House members are out for a district work week) to allow Mr Schumer to do a 180 and say the Senate will in fact vote on gun legislation. And whatever made him decide to do it, some of the chamber’s members are pushing ahead.

“Gun legislation is always uphill,” Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, one of the most outspoken voices on gun legislation, told your dispatcher. “So I can’t use the word ‘confident’. But I’m hopeful. I have to be hopeful to go to work every day.”

Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, who along with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin mounted the Senate’s last major push on gun legislation, told Manu Raju of CNN that he didn’t know how many Republican votes could be won for gun legislation, but he could only see a couple jumping on board.

One of those Senators is Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who told your dispatcher he had spoken with Mr Toomey about his and Mr Manchin’s proposed legislation on background checks.

“I’ve long felt that the federal government has responsibility for an effective background check system and if there ways to improve that, I could be supportive,” he said – adding that he hadn’t decided yet.

Still, some Democrats seemed to signal that they know this will likely end the same way their attempts to pass voting rights legislation, abortion rights or any of their other priorities ended: at best, some Republicans will join them in their efforts but not enough to break a filibuster; at worst, every Democrat will fall in line including Mr Manchin (who famously shot a climate change bill in one campaign ad) but no change to the filibuster.

(Igor Bobic at HuffPost reported that Mr Manchin called changing the filibuster “the easy way out”, asking: “What makes you think they won’t reverse it immediately if they don’t like what we do?”).

Senator Bernie Sanders, meanwhile. seemed to acknowledge the slim chances of any change. When your dispatcher asked how confident he was, he said “I’m not confident of anything. Why don’t you rephrase the question?

“You mean, do I think the United States Senate is capable of doing what the overwhelming majority of people want them to do?” he said. “I hope so. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

The peculiar part of the whole situation is that – as Parkland shooting survivor and gun control activist David Hogg pointed out – Democrats have the “most pro-gun reform president” in Joe Biden, who actually passed an assault weapons ban as part of the 1994 crime bill. But the Senate has changed drastically since Mr Biden was a member.

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who authored that assault weapons ban, seemed to echo that sentiment.

“I see all of what’s happening in the United States because of guns, and it’s deeply concerning,” she said. “It’s the one thing in American policy that is really disillusioning. That we cannot rise above that attraction. And this is the result. Part of it.”

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