Senators were expected to move on to a vote on Zika funding in the wake of a $1.1 billion Republican deal passed by the House on Wednesday, but without the support of Democrats.
The surprise Senate action came after a daylong protest by House Democrats demanding action on gun control. House Democrats sought action to restrict gun rights in the wake of the Orlando massacre, but were rebuffed by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who chose to adjourn the chamber instead for the July 4th recess.
Any meaningful action on gun control in Congress would mark a major break with the past. There was a significant 2013 push to expand background checks on gun sales that failed to garner 60 Senate votes in the wake of the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
But the last major gun control measure passed the Senate 22 years ago, banning assault weapons as part of the 1994 crime bill.
“Even though it wasn’t a big victory, it was a victory,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), calling it the first time the NRA lost a vote in the Senate since 1994. “Now, the Republican leadership has the responsibility to bring this bill to the floor for a real vote.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), by allowing test votes to go forward on Thursday, chose a different strategy than his House counterpart, Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who refused to cede to Democratic demands of holding a vote and instead moved to adjourn the House on Thursday morning.
Eight Republicans voted to keep alive the Collins proposal, which would deny firearms to anyone the FBI deems too risky or requiring additional screening to board a plane heading to or from the United States.
The Republican votes included Collins, Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Dan Coats (Ind.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.).
Meanwhile, senators did reject another proposal, 67 to 31, from Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, that would give the Justice Department only a three-day window — with the opportunity for a slight extension — to prove that there is probable cause to deny someone on such a list a firearm.
Democrats — and even Collins — speculated that such a side-by-side strategy was designed by GOP leaders in order to see her compromise fail because it would give those leaning toward doing something another option.
“I think leadership is responding to demand within the conference,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who helped Collins draft her compromise. “This is the way it should work. I like the idea you have more than one choice.”
A bipartisan group of senators have been working to build support for the Collins compromise ever since the Senate on Monday defeated competing Democrat and Republican-backed measures to deny guns to suspected terrorists.
Those senators believe they have enough committed votes from Democrats and a handful of Republicans — as well as enough Republicans “on the cusp” — that Collins’s measure could just secure the 60 votes needed to pass, Collins said Thursday.
Yet Thursday’s procedural votes were not on the Collins and Johnson measures themselves, but on “motions to table” them. Such motions require only 50 votes to approve or reject them.
Republican leaders are signaling they aren’t interested in putting Collins’s measure to a straight up-or-down vote, even if it survives the first procedural test.
“I think we need to be engaged in something more constructive,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Thursday.
“We’re going to focus on two similar bills,” he added of Thursday’s votes. “One that provides for due process and one that does not.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused Republican leaders of holding a “fake vote” that would put the compromise on a “path to nowhere.”
“Why?” he asked. “The NRA, simply put.”
The Collins measure focuses on two subsets of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database: the “No Fly List,” and the “Selectee List.”
The measure would bar roughly 2,700 Americans suspected of being terrorists from buying a gun, as the only way to break the political logjam surrounding the emotionally charged issue of gun control in the wake of the Orlando shooting.
It also contains a “lookback” provision to alert the FBI whenever someone on a watch list during the last five years purchases a firearm. It also gives anyone who thinks they were mistakenly denied a firearm the right to appeal the decision quickly, and have their legal fees covered by the government if they are proven right.
The Senate action comes amid a fierce debate in the House over Democrats push to hold similar gun control votes — an effort GOP leaders have resisted. House Democrats took over the floor Wednesday morning, staging a sit-in that ended a little over a day later.
Collins told a colleague in front of reporters Wednesday that the sit-in was “not helpful” for getting members on board with her compromise.
But some senators said the House debate may have helped the Senate move forward.
“I think it puts more of a spotlight on both House Republicans to schedule something and Senate Republicans to do something,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), one of the key negotiators on Collins’s compromise, who also visited the House floor during the sit-in Wednesday.
“And I think it also puts pressure on Democrats to embrace something, in a year where this could have just been a political cudgel, to do something and support something, even if that may not be everything they want.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many years it has been since the Senate passed a major gun control measure.