The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate rejects gun control amendments offered following San Bernardino shooting

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Charles Schumer support attaching gun control legislation to the Obamacare repeal package currently making its way through Congress. (EPA/SHAWN THEW)

The Senate on Thursday voted down two gun control proposals put forward by Democrats in response to this week’s deadly shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in a series of votes that highlighted the intractable party divide over how to respond to gun violence.

The Senate rejected a measure from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to expand background checks for guns purchased online and at gun shows on a 48 to 50 vote and an amendment from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to prevent individuals on the terror watch list from purchasing firearms on a 45 to 54 vote. The amendments were offered  to an Obamacare repeal package currently being debated in the Senate and they needed 60 votes to be adopted.

Feinstein’s amendment was identical to legislation she previously filed on the same topic, while the expansion of background checks for gun purchases mirrored language championed by Sens. Manchin and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) in 2013, following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School three years ago this month.

[Sign up for The Daily 202, The Washington Post’s new political tipsheet]

Manchin argued his amendment has bipartisan support and is a common sense response to gun violence.

“It’s for law-abiding gun owners and it’s a good piece of legislation and it’s most reasonable and it’s been accepted by people around the gun community,” he said.

“We have an opportunity to do it now with the height of  everything happening,” Manchin said. “For us not to do anything, just sit here and be mum would be just as bad.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for president as a Democrat, also came out strongly for the language.

“We need to significantly expand and improve background checks,” he said. “We need to renew the assault weapons ban. We need to end the sale of high capacity magazines. We need to make gun trafficking a federal crime and give law enforcement the tools they need to get illegal guns off of the streets. We need to close the gun show loophole as well as loopholes that allow gun purchasers to buy a gun after the waiting period expires without a completed background check.”

Presidential hopefuls talk about law enforcement, terrorism and gun control following the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

The Senate has tried, and failed, to pass similar language to the Manchin amendment before, most notably in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings when Manchin-Toomey failed in April 2013, 54 to 46. The bill lost the support of four Democrats but gained an equal number of Republican votes.

That episode remains the closest the Senate has come to a consensus on gun control and will likely remain a big part of the debate.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a key deal-maker, said in an interview Wednesday night shortly after the shooting that she favors reviving the Manchin-Toomey gun background check legislation.

“There is widespread support for background checks and for strengthening the gun trafficking laws,” she said.

“The problem with these mass shootings, which seem to be happening with increasing frequency, is too often we propose either more restrictions on gun ownership or more background checks for gun purchasers, versus mental health reform — when in fact we need both. That’s what I would like to see.”

But Thursday’s vote tallies don’t bode well for proponents of comprehensive gun control legislation.

The Manchin and Feinstein measures went down during a series of votes in which the Democratic proposals were paired with Republican counteroffers that also failed to be adopted by the Senate. All the amendments needed 60 votes to be adopted.

To counter Feinstein’s amendment, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) proposed a measure that would give the attorney general the power to impose a 72-hour delay for individuals on the terror watch list seeking to purchase a gun and it could become a permanent ban if a judge determines there is probable cause during that time window.

Cornyn argued that Feinstein’s amendment was “un-American” and violated individuals’ constitutional rights by potentially preventing someone mistakenly on the terror watch list from purchasing a firearm. Cornyn recalled that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) was once put on the terror watch list by mistake and he argued Feinstein’s amendment presupposed “that the federal government is omniscient and all-competent.”

That didn’t sit well with Democrats.

“To use Sen. Kennedy – let him be on the watch list, he’s not going to go buy a gun and hurt anybody,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) argued, calling Cornyn’s alternative “dangerous” and “ridiculous.”

Cornyn’s amendment failed by a vote of 55 to 45.

The Senate also rejected an alternative to Manchin’s amendment from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that would criminalize straw purchasing and gun trafficking and introduce incentives for states to provide mental health records to a national database. It also would help military members buy guns in their home states and reduce funding for cities that limit how much they cooperate with federal government efforts to enforce immigration laws, municipalities that critics have dubbed “sanctuary cities.”

Democratic leaders said Grassley’s proposal would roll back gun laws, not improve them.

“The loopholes are opened, and when it comes to background checks, it doesn’t do anything,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) complained.

Grassley’s was rejected on a vote of 53 to 46.

The Senate also rejected an amendment from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would allow for concealed carry licenses in the District of Columbia. It was rejected by a vote of 54 to 45 with all Democrats in opposition.

While the Senate largely split along party lines during these votes, a few members did cross the aisle. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) voted against both the Manchin and Feinstein amendments, while Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) voted for both.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Collins and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) also voted in favor of Manchin’s amendment to expand background checks. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), who is facing a tough reelection campaign in 2016, abstained from the vote on Manchin’s proposal, though he voted with Republican Party on the other gun control amendments Thursday.

House Democrats are also calling for action on gun control. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters on Thursday that she is calling on Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to convene a select committee on gun safety and to allow votes on the same gun control measures Democrats are pushing in the Senate.

Pelosi said she believes there are sufficient votes in the House to expand background checks to Internet sales and gun shows and to block individuals on the terrorist watch list from purchasing weapons.

Pelosi said she is not pushing for more controversial measures like an assault weapons ban in favor of more achievable legislation.

“We are talking about now where we think the most lives are saved,” Pelosi said. “There are members who would support an assault weapons ban but we are talking about what areas where we would have the most unanimous consensus.”

In the wake of the California shooting, Democratic senators were also weighing other gun control measures – such as a proposal from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to prevent people who have harassed women’s health facilities from owning a gun. But on Thursday, Democrats opted instead to focus their efforts on legislation to promote background checks and ban gun ownership for people on the terror watch list.

“Senators will need to decide where they stand. Or do they stand with the NRA?” Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday, declaring that the Senate had been “complicit through our inaction” in the 355 mass shootings that have taken place in the United States since the start of the year. “Those who choose to do the NRA’s bidding will be held accountable by our constituents.”

Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chair Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) pledged Democrats won’t give up the battle.

“We are prepared to fight for this in every place where we can make a difference and succeed,” Schumer said. “This is a long haul and every time there is a shooting more and more people are won over to us.”

The attack on the holiday party for county employees claimed 14 lives and may have been an act of terrorism, President Obama said on Thursday.

[FBI takes over San Bernardino investigation as authorities seek motive for attack that killed 14 people]

With the San Bernardino rampage marking the 355th mass shooting this year, Congress has repeatedly talked about action but hasn’t taken it. Senate Democrats recently tried unsuccessfully to jump-start a campaign to pass gun control legislation in the wake of a deadly shooting at a college campus in Roseburg, Ore.

And following the Paris terror attacks, Democrats once again called for attention to gun control, and a bill designed to keep guns out of the hands of people on the terror watch list. But that effort foundered too, and even its Republican backer is skeptical about the prospects of Congress now reconsidering it.

“To be honest with you, I don’t see it moving now,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who noted he has been sponsoring the bill for the last nine years.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R), who represents California, did not directly rule out gun control legislation when reporters asked him about it Thursday morning, but pivoted to stress that the San Bernardino shooting necessitated “an overhaul of our mental health program” and a look at “any gaps and any vulnerabilities that are out there” to deal with terrorism generally.

Overall, Democrats do not support the budget reconciliation package, which would repeal large portions of Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood.

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.