Senate ends gun control filibuster, but GOP still skeptical of bill

In a bipartisan vote Thursday, the Senate voted to override a filibuster and proceed with debate on a package of gun control bills. But support for debate doesn't mean support for the bill.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
Erica Lafferty (l.) and Jillian Soto (r.), who both lost relatives in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, attend a news briefing with (rear, l. to r.) Democratic Sens. Christopher Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Charles Schumer of New York in Washington Thursday. The Senate cleared the way on Thursday for debate on gun control proposals.

The initial showdown on a Republican filibuster of new gun laws went down with a whimper.

The Senate voted, 68 to 31, Thursday to begin formal debate of fresh gun legislation. Sixteen Republicans joined all but two Democrats in pushing support above the 60-vote threshold needed to begin the process of amending and, eventually, attempting to pass the bill, which has been a top priority for President Obama since the massacre in Newtown, Conn., last year.

But those 16 Republicans are by no means all "yes" votes when the bill eventually comes to a final vote. Indeed, with their comments Thursday, some Republicans suggested that battle lines have been clearly drawn: They will have to be convinced that this package of gun legislation can have any meaningful effect whatsoever.

Republicans don’t believe the legislation’s current mix of grants for greater school safety, stiffer penalties for gun trafficking and straw purchases, and extending background checks to gun sales done online and at gun shows will do anything to stem gun violence. Moreover, they worry that the legislation infringes on Second Amendment rights.

This could be a blow to the prospects for Wednesday's bipartisan deal between Sens. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia and Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, which would expand background checks, and which will be offered as the first amendment to the bill when the Senate reconvenes next week.

Because the background check requirement does not extend to private sales outside gun shows, “what everybody at the gun shows in Oklahoma is going to do is make a deal with the guy at the gun show and buy it later,” says Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, who at one point worked to find a background check compromise, and who will offer his own amendment on the point. “So what have you accomplished?”

Democrats, however, say the measures in the legislation are effective and constitutionally viable ways to help curtail gun crimes.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia called the background-check provision, in particular, a “big step forward” and notes that even getting to a full debate on guns in the Senate for the first time in nearly 20 years is a significant achievement.

“There has not been a meaningful discussion on the floor of this body about these kinds of reasonable limitations for a very long time,” says Senator Kaine, who unsuccessfully fought to close the gun-show loophole as Virginia’s governor in the aftermath of the shooting at Virginia Tech. “It’s almost like the latter-day gag rule. It’s the topic that cannot be discussed.... We’re opening the door for full discussion and for a full vote.”

Several Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bob Corker of Tennessee, voted for the measure with the caveat that they believed the debate should continue – not that they were anywhere near supporting the underlying legislation.

On the Democratic side, Sens. Mark Begin of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, both up for election in 2014 in deeply red states, voted against the measure, with Senator Begin decrying the existing legislation as “anti-gun” in a statement.

What was settled on Thursday, was that a supermajority of senators wanted the debate to go forward without the delay of rerouting the process around a filibuster. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada had vowed to use Senate parliamentary procedure to ensure votes on gun bills even if senators failed to break the filibuster Thursday. 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, one of a trio of Republican senators who spearheaded the filibuster effort, said the filibuster was about requiring any issue on guns to obtain a 60-vote threshold.

But attempting to block even debate on the bill was abhorrent to some Senate Republicans.

“The American people deserve a debate on an issue of this importance in the United States Senate,” says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who voted to override the filibuster.

The Republican emphasis on filibustering this stage of the process was a “huge mistake,” given the public outcry over shootings in Newtown; Aurora, Colo.; and Tucson, Ariz.

Senator Cruz responded that standing in the way of bad legislation was worth doing no matter what.

“What I think is unfortunate is Washington sometimes devolves into a political circus that isn’t focused on actually fixing the problem – that’s not focused on actually stopping violent crime, punishing violent criminals, but instead on passing legislation or promoting legislation that makes a big splash but doesn’t do anything to prevent crime,” Cruz said after the vote.

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