The Wrong Fight

Why super-loud Republicans threatening a filibuster over the gun bill make Democrats smile.

Senate Republican Candidate, Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz speaks during the Republican National Convention.

Sen. Ted Cruz speaks as Sen. Mike Lee looks on during a press conference. Both senators have signed a letter promising to oppose any gun-restriction legislation.

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt wrapped up at the Republican leadership press conference—the typical, news-challenged Recitation of the Talking Points—and walked into a wall of reporters. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell had signed on to a pre-emptive filibuster of any gun bill. Would Blunt join him?

“I think it’s better to debate these issues and vote on ’em,” said Blunt. “But I’ll decide, as everybody else will, what they’re gonna do on that when there’s a for-certain bill with the ability to offer amendments.” Maybe they didn’t need to block a vote on the bill right away. “We always have the 60-vote standard on whether to go to a final vote or not.”

In 2010, Blunt easily won a Senate race in a state that’s getting redder. He has an A rating from the National Rifle Association. Wayne LaPierre actually campaigned for him that year, headlining one of the events on Blunt’s “Second Amendment Tour.” And so reporters kept following Blunt to make sure they hadn’t dreamt these quotes.

“I missed the first part of that,” asked one reporter. “You believe we should allow this gun legislation to proceed to debate?”

“Oh, I don’t think I said that,” said Blunt. “I said I’ll be anxious to see what the actual gun legislation looks like when Sen. Reid brings it to the floor. But as a general principle, it’s better to debate the bill.”

That didn’t quite end it. Blunt was asked whether his colleagues—like McConnell, the leader in the Senate—were wise to threaten a filibuster. “Let’s see if they can truly argue that Republicans weren’t able to propose any alternatives,” he said. Another reporter arrived and inserted her recording device into the scrum.

“I wanted to ask you,” she said, “and you may have addressed this already, whether you support the filibuster?”

Not a feeding frenzy, but close to it. As Blunt patiently answered the questions, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was announcing that he’d seek cloture on gun control legislation. Not even 24 hours had passed since reporters were tut-tutting about President Obama’s “last ditch” push for gun control. Was everybody wrong? Was the bill going to pass?

Yes and no. Yes, the consensus idea that the gun debate was over, that Obama had blown it by not moving faster, was strange and hasty. Nine times out of 10 it’s safe to assume that Congress won’t pass a bill. It’s Congress! But the “gun safety” lobby (best to scare-quote the term, as it’s a media-tested replacement for “gun control”) had said for months that it would accept a gun bill far, far reduced from the recommendations of the White House’s task force. Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly’s own gun control activism was focused on passing universal background checks. The families of Newtown massacre victims, in Washington, D.C. this week for another round of tear-jerking and lobbying, have focused their campaign on a vote, period, not on any specific bill.

The Republican Party in the Senate isn’t built for nuance like that. Their struggles began on March 22, when Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz released an open letter to Reid promising to “oppose the motion to proceed to any legislation that will serve as a vehicle for any additional gun restrictions.” That quickly turned into flypaper for Republicans who wanted to make a pre-emptive pro–freedom-and-America stand. And this was covered as “momentum building for a filibuster.”

We’ve been trapped in this Wonderland of spin before. In February, opponents of defense nominee Chuck Hagel promised to filibuster his nomination. Ted Cruz wrote a letter; they signed onto it. They had the votes to delay Hagel with one filibuster, but over the next congressional recess, as damaging Hagel intel failed to emerge, the 41-senator squad fell apart. The hardcore Hagel foes revealed how weak they were with another letter, asking the president to withdraw the nomination. That only got 14 signatures. You either have 41, or you don’t have a filibuster. The White House won.

So the Senate lurched on to the gun bill—and conservatives tried the exact same strategy. The White House’s gun bill push has never been about a must-have provision. Like the 2009 push for health care reform or the 2010 Dodd–Frank offensive, it’s been about getting something done and letting the Senate Democrats figure out the “something.” If the final gun bill looks like the compromise being put together by Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, well, sure, fine. Obama’s new tribute to gun violence victims isn’t “they deserve an assault weapons ban.” It’s “they deserve a vote.” How better to prove that, and to get the discussion away from the details that were weakening the background checks push, then another fight with the Senate conservatives?

This frustrated the Senate’s more experienced Republicans. A filibuster draws attention to a cause when it’s done well. But if you’re serious about killing a bill, you can debate it and attach a “poison pill” amendment—a tactic that sunk the post-Columbine gun bills of 1999. That could still happen this year. First, Republicans had to explain (and explain and explain) their filibuster stances.

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker wasn’t on board with the filibuster. “This is one senator who likes to read a bill before I make a decision about what I’m gonna do,” he said. “What’s the bill? It could be a negotiated agreement between Manchin and Toomey. I saw them on the floor for a few moments and wished them well.”

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham didn’t want to block a vote, either. “As long as we get amendments, I want to proceed to the bill,” he said. “I think we should be allowed to amend it. I’m not afraid of this debate. I want this debate.”

Even Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who’d signed the filibuster letter, opened up room to allow a vote. “It was an easy letter to sign, because I took an oath to defend the Constitution,” he told reporters. “I try to be pretty flexible. The letter was about any bill that would restrict Second Amendment rights.”

By late afternoon Democrats had heard as many as 10 Republicans buck the filibuster, on the record. If those senators were serious, a few red state Democrats, like Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, would be free to cast “no’s” and then cut re-election ads. Reid wouldn’t say he had the votes to win, but neither would Cruz.

“That will be up to the members of the Senate,” Cruz said to a throng of reporters outside a Capitol Hill elevator. “In my view every senator has a responsibility to actively protect the bill of rights. Any bill that would undermine the bill of rights should, in my opinion, be subject to a 60-vote threshold.”

Cruz kept talking, asking the press to focus on things like “the prosecution priorities of the Obama Justice Department” instead of the gun bill du jour. He talked, and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, walked pass the press corps, generally unnoticed, which isn’t a bad thing to be if you think you’re going to win.