Will Senate vote on gun control? Untangling the politics of filibusters

The Senate will hold a vote on gun control legislation Thursday – but it's only to break a filibuster and allow debate to proceed. Will the bill actually become law? That's a different question.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Sens. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York (l.) and Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia speak to reporters as they walk from the office of Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday after a meeting on gun control.

President Obama appears increasingly likely to get the very least of his demands on new national gun-control legislation: an open debate in the Senate on a package of firearms bills followed by a vote. What remains uncertain is what might pass in that vote and become law.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada told reporters on Tuesday that he was scheduling a vote for Thursday to break a Republican filibuster. Several Republican senators, including Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, have vowed to block the bills. If 60 senators vote Thursday to end that filibuster, then the Senate can proceed with actually debating and amending the proposed bills.

That looks likely. Currently, nine Republicans have agreed to vote to stop a filibuster Thursday. With only a pair of potential Democratic defections expected, Senator Reid seems to have the 60 votes he needs to proceed.

From there, however, the prospects for the package to pass the Senate – much less the House – get more nuanced.

Measures to ban assault weapons or high-capacity magazines are almost certain to fail, while measures to stiffen penalties for straw purchases and gun trafficking and to increase school safety are likely to pass the Senate.

The outstanding question is whether the Senate can rally around universal background checks. Currently, the votes don't appear to be there, but Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia and Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania are negotiating a potential compromise amendment that could get bipartisan support.

In the meantime, the threat by Senator Paul and colleagues to block the progress of the bill is driving Senator Manchin batty. 

Manchin has an A rating from the National Rifle Association and once famously shot a copy of a cap-and-trade bill in a campaign commercial, but he says the filibuster is pointless. Republicans had two long-standing issues about what would happen if the bill proceeded to debate: First, that amendments from both sides should be allowed in abundance, and second, that no bill would actually pass the Senate without a 60-vote supermajority. Both have been agreed to.

“I’ve agreed with Republicans that there should be an open amendment process. That’s been guaranteed. And for anyone to talk that they’re going to filibuster, when you’ve [been] given everything that you’ve asked for doesn’t make any sense to me,” he says. “We’re all big guys and big ladies, we can take the votes.”

But Paul, Senator Lee, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas say the package infringes on Second Amendment rights. By insisting on their right to filibuster, Senate rules dictated that Reid delay the procedural vote 72 hours – to Thursday.

“Our effort to require a 60 vote threshold is an attempt to facilitate greater debate about the specific piece of legislation that will come to the Senate floor,” Lee said in a statement. “By objecting to the motion to proceed, we guarantee that the Senate and the American people have at least three additional days to assess and evaluate exactly how this particular bill will affect the rights of law-abiding citizens and whether it will have any significant impact on crime.”

Should the Senate break the filibuster as expected Thursday, attention will then turn to the effort to mandate universal background checks. Even if the assault-weapon and high-capacity magazine measures fail, the background checks would be a significant achievement, some say. 

It “might not be everything,” says Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, who governed the commonwealth during the 2006 shooting at Virginia Tech. “But that would be very helpful.”

Even if the Senate could manage a compromise, though, the bill would then have to go to the House, where its prospects remain unclear.

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