Democratic leaders initially balked at the exemption but relented after meetings in which the NRA’s chief lobbyist, Chris Cox — joined by Dingell and Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) — warned that without it, the legislation would lose 50 Democratic votes, according to a person familiar with the meetings who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
By the time the session was over, Van Hollen, the bill’s author, “looked as though he was going to vomit,” according to the person familiar with the meetings. The measure passed on a mostly party-line vote in the House but died in the Senate.
This July, as House Republicans moved to censure Holder for his role in withholding information on a botched gunrunning investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious, some Democratic allies were angered at being told that their NRA election grade would be based in part on the Holder vote.
“I find myself in an unusual position today,” Dingell wrote in his June 28 letter to colleagues. “It seems I am at odds with the National Rifle Association, a group with which I have been proud to be associated with throughout my tenure in Congress.”
Dingell’s actions helped persuade numerous pro-gun-rights Democrats to join him in opposing the Holder resolution. Of the 31 Democrats who signed on to a June letter to Obama expressing “serious concern” about the administration’s response to the congressional inquiry into Fast and Furious, 11 opposed the Holder resolution and four did not vote.
Demographic changes in some districts have given Democratic lawmakers more latitude to buck the NRA.
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), for instance, has for years been viewed as an NRA friend. But that is largely a vestige of his time in the 1980s and 1990s representing a rural district. His district is now based in and around Nashville. Cooper opposed the Holder censure and said this week that he was “willing to consider any proposal that will keep our children safe, regardless of politics.”
A similar shift can be seen in Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), a supporter of gun rights who has criticized the NRA in recent years, perhaps feeling freer as the political power of Virginia has shifted to the more centrist suburbs and exurbs. He blasted the NRA in 2009 for its opposition to Sotomayor and made headlines this week when he told reporters that he had received “A” ratings from the NRA in the past, but “enough is enough.”
Money is also a factor. The NRA has historically outspent gun-control advocates in elections, but Bloomberg poured more than $9 million late in this year’s campaign to defeat opponents of gun restrictions.
During the 2012 cycle, the NRA spent about $20 million on federal races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, mostly in support of Republican lawmakers.
Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), a longtime gun rights proponent, lost this year after being targeted by Bloomberg. He blames the NRA for failing to bolster his campaign, citing his refusal to support the Holder resolution.
The NRA “left me high and dry, despite my years of strong support for Second Amendment rights,” Baca said in an interview.
Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.