The Odd Politics Of The GOP’s Gun Control Filibuster
The GOP's decision to filibuster the Senate Gun Control Bill doesn't make a lot of political sense.
As I’ve noted here over the past couple weeks, a substantial number of Republican Senators have announced their intention to filibuster the Senate Gun Control Bill when it comes to the floor later this month or, depending on Harry Reid’s decision making, next month. It started out being just Rand Paul and a few of his political allies such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but it has now expanded rather dramatically. Last week, the number of Senators who said they were on board with the filibuster expanded to twelve, and yesterday Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his support for the filibuster while simultaneously signaling that he might be open to some deal making on the bill. Presumably, more Republicans than have publicly announced so far would support a filibuster, meaning that there would not be sufficient votes to overcome cloture and the bill would die without a vote on the merits. While there are some parliamentary maneuvers that Majority Leader Harry Reid can engage in to get around this, they would not preclude the possibility of another “talking filibuster” like the one that Rand Paul engaged over the nomination John Brennan to be CIA Director, and it would further through into doubt the possibility that any kind of legislation could get past the Senate.
Here’s the thing, though, when you really look at the situation on the ground, the idea of making a Senate filibuster of gun control legislation a hill for the GOP to die on doesn’t really make a lot of sense, and to understand why one need only look at the political reality of gun control in 2013.
To start with, it is blindingly obvious that the most stringent idea being pushed by Senate Democrats, an “Assault Weapons” ban similar to the one that was in effect from 1994 to 2004, is not going to happen. Last month, Harry Reid announced that the ban would not be part of the bill that will be presented on the Senate Floor, largely because it was clear that there was no chance the ban would pass the Senate even on an up-or-down vote and attaching it to the overall bill would mean the entire bill would be dead. So, to the extent that the concern about any legislation that would come out of the Senate is that it would include a “gun ban,” that fear is no longer an issue. The AWB ban will be proposed by Senator Feinstein as an amendment to the Senate bill, and that amendment will be defeated just as Senator Reid intended.
That leaves the Senate bill with two main provisions left, limitations on the size of magazines and an expansion of the background check system to capture those transactions, such as private sales, that presently occur outside the system. As I’ve noted here before, both of those provisions are very popular among the general public, however, it seems apparent that they only one that has a realistic chance of making it out of the Senate is the background check idea, the details of which are still being negotiated among a bipartisan group of Senators. If we end up with a situation where the Senate Gun Bill really just ends up being about background checks, which are supported by 91% of the American public according to a poll released last week, is the GOP really going to risk being seen as being obstructionist by preventing the bill from even making it to the floor for a vote? We’ve already seen evidence over the past several years that the public sees the GOP as obstructionist, all this would do is provide more evidence for that argument.
The last piece of evidence that makes a GOP “all or nothing” approach to a filibuster of gun legislation in the Senate is the existence of the House of Representatives. No matter what happens in the Senate, any legislation will have to go through the Republican controlled House. Leaving aside the fact that it would likely never pass the Senate, there’s no way an “Assault Weapons” ban would ever pass the House. The same goes for magazine restrictions. As for background checks, what we’d likely see there are efforts by Republicans to place limits on any expansion of background checks to protect privacy and prevent the checks from being turned into a national database of some kind, concerns that even the ACLU have noted about the bill currently being considered in the Senate. All of this would be accomplished without the GOP having to expend serious political capital by engaging in a filibuster against proposals that, according to all the polls, are immensely popular.
So, why are Republicans even thinking about doing this? Several reasons come to mind. First of all, there’s the old adage that every Senator thinks they should be President, and there is no shortage of Republican Senators who are being discussed as potential Presidential candidates in 2016, most notably Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. Taking a strong position on an issue like this goes a long way toward boosting their bona fides with the conservative base. Second, even Senators who aren’t running for President will see this as a way to curry favor with the base. Finally, for the most part the individual Senators engaging in this filibuster won’t suffer any adverse political consequences, even if it does end up damaging the GOP brand. Once again, the GOP appears to be missing the forest for the trees.