Why Republicans shouldn’t filibuster the gun bill

April 8, 2013

If Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) can't come to a deal on expanded background checks sometime in the next few days, President Obama's gun legislation is headed toward a filibuster led by some of the Senate's most conservative members.


South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. AP photo.

Politically speaking, such a move could have short-term benefits for Republicans but also creates real risks for further damage to the party's already tarnished brand in the long(er) term.

“The delay is ok if the Senate invokes cloture,” said former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis (R). “If issue is killed in filibuster then we are in deep trouble.” (Cloture would mean that a vote would occur on whether to end debate.)

Ove the weekend, Arizona Sen. John McCain warned against the idea of a filibuster, which has been floated by the likes of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio among others. "The purpose of the United States Senate is to debate and to vote and to let the people know where we stand," McCain said. "What are we afraid of?"

Defenders of the idea of a filibuster on guns insist that the 2014 political calculations mean that there is little risk to their side if the legislation doesn't make it. "You have to take it out of a national context and put it into a midterm viewpoint to make an adequate political assessment," explained one senior Republican Senate strategist. "In the states that matter in 2014, and the states currently held by GOP Senators, there is not a lot of liability in defeating a gun control bill. How it is defeated is probably irrelevant."

A look at the map proves that out.  Of the 14 seats that Republicans are defending in 2014, just one -- Maine -- is in a state that President Obama won in 2012. Contrast that with five Democratic incumbents up in 2014 in states Mitt Romney won as well as two open seats in South Dakota and West Virginia where Romney prevailed, and you begin to see how the near-term politics may well not punish (and might even reward) those who put down a gun control law.

But, what's good politics for Republicans in South Dakota or Nebraska or Mississippi is not necessarily a good thing for the GOP's attempts to rebrand itself.  Remember that expanded background checks have the support of roughly nine in ten Americans -- a sort of no-brainer issue that typically guarantees congressional action of some sort.

If Republicans kill gun control measures that are widely popular via the filibuster they run the very real risk of alienating many of the right-leaning independents and centrists that they badly need to win back in advance of the 2016 presidential election.

Davis' argument -- outlined above -- is the right one. Forcing more discussion of the Senate guns bill before ultimately allowing a cloture vote to shut off debate and move toward a final vote is entirely defensible from a policy and political perspective.

"For conservatives, the unease about a robust government which always generously interprets its power to investigate, regulate, legislate and litigate is longstanding, and looking for the time to talk this over gives them the best chance to lay their principles before constituents and the general public, so that in the end, voters may disagree with a specific politician but nevertheless respect the stand that she took," explained Eric Ueland, a former top aide to then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

All true. But if an up or down vote isn't allowed -- even for cloture -- the dynamic changes. All of a sudden Republicans become the party defined by their use of a Senate rule that virtually no one understands to shut down a bill that, at least in its component parts, a large majority of Americans favor.

For a party who is commonly regarded as "inflexible" and "unwilling to compromise" being seen as the side that ended gun control without even a vote further addd to a very negative perception of the GOP. Opposing gun control on 2nd Amendment grounds is one thing. ("If Republicans are not the party associated with protecting the 2nd amendment, we’ve got nothing," said a veteran GOP operative with close ties to the Senate.)  Using the rules of the Senate to block a vote, however, is something entirely different.

Senate Republicans would do well to remember the difference between the two paths if/when the Toomey-Manchin talks break down and the attention turns to the possibility of a GOP filibuster.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · April 8, 2013