In the end, Sen. Pat Toomey would not settle for what so often passes as standing on principle in the Senate: doing nothing at all.
Instead, the Pennsylvania Republican known best for his deeply conservative fiscal beliefs put his political future on the line for guns, reaching a compromise with Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia to expand background checks on firearms transactions at gun shows and for online sales.
The news came the same day that the National Rifle Association gave its blessing to a less-controversial gun measure by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont and Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, which would stiffen penalties for illegal gun purchases and firearms trafficking. Together, the two moves gave a significant boost to President Obama's hopes that the Senate would pass at least some gun legislation in response to the massacre in Newtown, Conn.
The next step is a vote on Thursday to break a Republican filibuster blocking debate on the broader package of gun-control bills. If Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada can rally 60 votes, as seems likely, the Senate would then proceed to debating and amending the legislation. At that time, Senator Manchin said his compromise bill with Senator Toomey would be offered as the first amendment of many to be put to a vote.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois is already a supporter of the legislation, but Toomey said it was too early to tell how many other Republicans would follow his lead. There could be many, given the respect within the Republican caucus for the conservative senator from the Keystone State.
Precisely because of that, the deal was a bold move by Toomey, who is now risking the wrath of the powerful NRA as well as conservatives within his state to do what he says is "common sense."
“What also became apparent to me in the course of this debate, [is] there was the danger that we might end up accomplishing nothing, and not making progress where we could,” Toomey said at a packed Capitol Hill press conference on Wednesday.
The bill would do several things:
- Require all prospective firearms purchasers at gun shows or on the Internet to pass a background check. It would not, however, require background checks for private purchases.
- Provide incentives to states to provide full criminal- and mental-health data to the federal background check database.
- Make several small tweaks to existing gun laws long-sought by Second Amendment advocates, such as providing greater protections for gun owners to travel with their weapons and allowing active-duty military members to purchase firearms where they live.
- Establish a national commission on mass violence, a key priority for Manchin, that will look at the roots of violence from the perspectives of both policy and culture.
“This is a bipartisan movement, it's bipartisan amendment, and we all know that a bipartisan solution is a lasting solution,” said Manchin, who had chased a deal on background checks in talks with Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma and Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, among others.
The question now is how many Republicans Toomey can bring to the bill, which will need 60 votes to avoid the threat of another filibuster before the final vote. Not all Republicans who are expected to vote Thursday to allow debate to proceed are considered sure "yes" votes on the actual legislation. Meanwhile, Republican colleagues including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, Toomey's erstwhile allies on fiscal matters, are vowing to halt any gun measure in its tracks.
To Toomey, expanded background checks – which some polls show are supported by 90 percent of Americans – are a way that Congress can respond to the public outcry after Newtown without infringing on the constitutional rights of lawful gun owners.
“I don’t consider criminal background checks gun control. I consider them common sense,” Toomey said Wednesday. “The argument we hear sometimes about background checks leading to the erosion of our Second Amendment rights, that simply hasn’t happened, and we are going to make sure that it doesn’t.”
On one hand, the deal has substantial political risks for Toomey, given his conservative base of support in Pennsylvania.
“It’s surprising, and there certainly is an element of risk to what he’s doing,” says Charlie Gerow, a longtime Republican operative in the Keystone State. “Pennsylvania is a very pro-gun state. It’s always thin ice that you’re skating on when you use the Second Amendment issues as a platform on which to launch a compromise.”
That said, Toomey is also showing that his political persona is more nuanced than his reputation suggests. As a former head of the Club for Growth, which turns the screws on insufficiently conservative members of Congress in primary battles, he was seen as a conservative insurgent. But Wednesday's deal shows that he will fight for compromise, too.
During the failed “supercommittee” deficit negotiations, it was Toomey who offered a plan that would have raised a small amount of new government revenue in exchange for targeted spending reductions. Moreover, Toomey is proud of his strong working relationship with his state’s Democratic senator, Bob Casey, Mr. Gerow adds.
“Obviously, he politically [needs] to play for the long run, and this is a state that is not as conservative in some parts as it is in others,” Gerow says. “It’s a very anomalous state – there are pieces of Pennsylvania that are hardcore conservative and other places that are New York liberal. Senator Toomey has got to walk a delicate line of adhering to his conservative principles while at the same time being able to govern and legislate.”
The political risks were evident on Wednesday.
The libertarian group Campaign for Liberty called Toomey as "Benedict" Toomey for "doing Barack Obama and Harry Reid's bidding for gun control." And the NRA, on whose legislative scorecard Toomey and Manchin both have top marks, ripped expanded background checks as misdirected – but stopped short of urging senators to oppose the measure, pointing to the fact that it approved of exempting private transactions from background checks.
“While the overwhelming rejection of President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg's 'universal' background check agenda is a positive development,” the NRA said in a statement. “We have a broken mental health system that is not going to be fixed with more background checks at gun shows.”
Indeed, the potential impact of the Manchin-Toomey compromise is the subject to debate. Advocates for new gun laws suggest that improving the reach of the nation's system for vetting potential gun buyers is the biggest possible policy victory.
But Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearms Association, a centrist group on the gun-rights spectrum, says: "Being able to fix the problem at gun shows, if we think it’s going to solve anything, we’re kidding ourselves."
"Yes, it will accomplish the purpose of preventing prohibited individuals from getting weapons at gun shows," he says, and the impact on law-abiding gun owners is "somewhere between zero and de minimis."
But gun shows are only one place where criminals obtain guns – theft, for example, is a major source – and thus the measure mostly "shifts [the source] where [criminals and the mentally ill] obtain the guns," Mr. Feldman says.
In the House, prospects for passage of the bill are unclear.
Reps. Mike Thompson (D) of California and Peter King (R) of New York voiced their support for the measure, saying they would continue to work on a similar plan in the House. Toomey said a “substantial” number of House Republicans he had spoken with would support a similar compromise.
“Any bill that passes the Senate, we're going to review it,” Speaker Boehner told reporters Wednesday. “But I want to wait and see what actually passes over in the Senate.”