Getting The Background Check Filibuster Right

The demise of expanded background check legislation in the Senate today will be especially disappointing to gun control advocates who also backed strong filibuster reforms earlier this year. But the filibuster is what it is, and now that the Manchin-Toomey amendment is dead, it’s especially crucial that reporters covering the story accurately characterize what happened.

Of course, that’s always important. But as in any story some facts are more central to the plot than others. Tonight, I’m seeing a lot of early reports to the effect that the Senate has rejected the background check amendment. That’s not false, but it is highly obfuscatory.In this case, as in so many others, a GOP filibuster threat meant the amendment needed 60 votes to carry. So even though a healthy majority of the Senate (mostly Democrats) voted for the legislation, it died.

That obviously happens all the time in the Senate. And I always think it’s important to be clear about it. But the gun control filibuster heightens the urgency for a few reasons.

1). It’s an issue of national and electoral importance.

2). It’s an issue that’s effectively designed to allow the parties to direct cultural signals to voters — but that can’t really happen if the media is ambiguous about what happened.

3). This wasn’t, like so many other filibusters, a backdoor source of leverage for the minority — a means of securing a more favorable final outcome in a debate over must-pass legislation like increasing the debt limit or appropriations. It’s just dead. And it will remain dead unless several of the members who voted no experience unlikely changes of heart.

4). It was drafted in bipartisan fashion by one of the Senate’s most conservative Democrats and one of its most conservative Republicans.

5). Most crucially, it would have passed if given the up-or-down vote President Obama demanded.

In a real way, it’s a lot like the DREAM Act vote two and a half years ago. That too had majority support in the Senate but failed because of a filibuster. Then when the politics turned, the people who filibustered it hid behind the confusing process, and characterized its failure as a Democratic broken promise.

To a slightly lesser extent it’s also reminiscent of the JOBS Act filibuster.

I don’t really know what the backlash from today’s vote will look like — from either direction. Obviously the major advocates on both sides know what happened, and have their own ways of communicating with voters. But 90 percent of the population supported the Manchin-Toomey amendment. Not all of them are super tuned in. They can’t exact a political price from elected officials unless they know what really happened. And the members who supported the filibuster will get undeserved cover from reports that characterize it as the “Senate’s” failure.