By Dana Milbank
Thursday, July 23, 2009

How do you outgun the NRA? Very, very carefully.

Mark Pryor knows all about that. The Democratic senator from pro-gun Arkansas was nowhere to be seen on the Senate floor during Wednesday's showdown over a proposal, championed by the National Rifle Association, that would have gutted state gun-control laws across the nation.

After a morning of angry speeches, a vote was called at high noon. Toward the end of the vote, Pryor entered the chamber through the back door, took a few steps inside, flashed a thumbs-down to the clerk, and retreated as fast and furtively as somebody dodging gunfire.

Several minutes later, the Democrats had racked up more than enough votes to block the proposal. "Are there any senators in the chamber wishing to vote or wishing to change their vote?" the presiding officer inquired.

Pryor burst back in, this time through a side door. "Mr. President!" he called out. "Mr. President!" He stopped in the well to consult with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a gun-control advocate who was keeping the whip sheet. Schumer gave Pryor a nod, and the Arkansan -- reassured that his vote was not needed to defeat the proposal -- changed his vote to an "aye."

If Pryor wasn't exactly a profile in courage, keep in mind: The gun lobby has a lot of money and a lot of clout, not to mention a lot of guns. And it doesn't mind firing off a few rounds to keep lawmakers in line.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) served this function during the debate when he reminded his colleagues that the NRA would factor this vote into its ratings. "The National Rifle Association, the NRA, is a strong supporter of this amendment," he warned, and it's also "specifically scoring this amendment in terms of member votes."

Looking down the barrel of that gun, 20 of the 60 Democrats in the chamber defected to the NRA's side. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a gun-loving lawmaker whose aide was charged in 2007 with trying to carry a loaded pistol and extra ammunition into a Senate office building, even spoke on the floor about how his Democratic colleagues were spreading "misinformation."

A couple of seats away, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a gun-control supporter, raised his eyebrows and shook his head.

Only two Republicans went against the gun lobby, but that was enough to leave supporters just short of the 60 votes they needed. The slim margin was no accident: Other Democrats, such as Pennsylvania's Bob Casey and Colorado's Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, were said to have been willing to vote "no" if necessary. Twenty minutes after the voting began, Bennet and Udall left the cloakroom together and walked into the chamber. Bennet went to the well to consult with Schumer, who indicated that it was safe for Bennet -- a product of D.C.'s St. Albans School -- to vote with the NRA. Bennet looked to Udall, who gave an approving nod, and cast his "aye" vote.

Schumer found himself in the unusual position of opposing many of the moderate Democrats he helped bring to office as the head of Senate Democrats' campaign efforts, including Webb, Casey, Jon Tester (Mont.) and Mark Warner (Va.). "Senator," a reporter noted to Schumer at a post-vote news conference, "you were staring down some of the folks you were losing on the floor."

"No. I wasn't at all," Schumer replied. "There was no staring down at all -- none."

Lautenberg tried to defend his colleague. "He was, I thought, mellow, very specific, and not at all threatening or suggesting punishment," he offered.

Either way, it had been clear that Democrats needed some more discipline on gun-control measures. They had already lost votes earlier this year on proposals to allow the carrying of concealed firearms in national parks and to repeal most of the District's gun controls.

The D.C. measure passed with 62 votes. But this time, two Democrats, Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.), were persuaded to switch sides -- and they weren't the only lawmakers caught in the crossfire between the NRA and gun-control forces.

Earlier this week, Lautenberg told reporters that Harry Reid (Nev.), the Democratic leader, would vote against the proposal. But Reid testily refuted Lautenberg. "I'm not going to explain why I'm voting for it," he explained. "I'm just voting for it."

Reid stayed out of view Wednesday while the true believers on both sides abandoned their usual positions

Urban liberals, who typically champion federal authority, lined up to proclaim their fealty to states' rights. "Leave us alone! Leave us alone!" demanded Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Her California colleague, Dianne Feinstein (D), even displayed an enlarged photo of the flag-draped caskets of police officers who have been killed.

Southerners, who historically promote states' rights, demanded that the federal government overrule the states on gun laws. John Thune (R-S.D.), who sponsored the measure, said that he was merely trying to "clarify this patchwork" of state laws, and he accused the Democrats of "wild exaggerations" and "scare tactics."

For once, the gun-control crowd won a shootout with the NRA. But nobody was talking about disarmament. "We know the gun lobby is strong," Schumer said after the vote. "We know they will be back."

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