Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) threat late Monday to filibuster gun control, which came during President Obama’s televised speech bashing Republicans who have made such threats, carries important implications for the debate.
In short, McConnell’s filibuster threat makes it ever more likely that any final legislation that passes Congress will have the National Rifle Association’s stamp of approval.Senate Democratic leaders are in talks with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) about a compromise for expanded background checks, and aren’t eager to bring up the bill until they’ve won some Republican support. And McConnell is leaving the door open to support gun legislation if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) amends his universal gun checks proposal.
“Sen. McConnell opposes the Reid bill,” the minority leader’s spokesman, Don Stewart, told TPM. “While nobody knows yet what Sen. Reid’s plan is for the gun bill, if he chooses to file cloture on the motion to proceed to the Reid bill, Sen. McConnell will oppose cloture on proceeding to that bill.”
In other words, if a bipartisan deal is struck, McConnell may very well forgo the filibuster and possibly even vote for the final version. But his threat is weighty because he’s an extraordinarily clever strategist and has a proven track record of unifying Senate Republicans behind his will. And so his filibuster threat will likely force Democrats to win his approval for any passable bill.
Crucially, McConnell is up for reelection next year in bright-red Kentucky, and is carefully watching his right flank. That means he won’t dare get on the NRA’s bad side, but he could also be on the hook if any wayward Republicans decide to buck the party line and join Democrats on a bill the powerful gun industry lobby dislikes. In other words, McConnell seems to have taken it upon himself to make sure any new gun legislation will be NRA-compliant.
On that score, lawmakers have an escape hatch to say they support background checks without actually doing anything doing anything to make it harder for people to avoid them when buying a firearm at gun shows or in private sales. The NRA supports enhancing mental health reporting in existing background check systems, a policy that some pro-gun senators back and point to as evidence that they support background checks.
The compromise being floated between Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Toomey would expand background checks while carving out a number of exemptions, and it would ensure that records of those checks are promptly destroyed. That would go against gun control advocates and law enforcement who say saving the records would help trace firearms used for crimes. But the deal is not final. And the NRA has opposed those sorts of compromises — so far.
Robust gun control legislation never had a great chance of passing the Senate, much less the Republican-led House. But McConnell’s filibuster threat puts Democrats on notice that they must lower their expectations if they want to enact any new gun restrictions.