The Senate Kills Background Checks, and Obama Gets Angry

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

"The President reacts as John Brennan briefs him on the details of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. 

Yesterday, a Republican filibuster killed the Senate compromise on expanded background checks, which had support from 54 senators, including its authors, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Skittish red-state Democrats like Montana’s Max Baucus, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, Alaska’s Mark Begich, and Arkansas’ Mark Pryor joined the opposition, voting to uphold the filibuster and defeat the proposal.

Lawmakers are risk averse, and congressional cowardice is the norm, but this was a particularly shameful instance of doing the wrong thing. No one expects red-state Democrats to vote for new gun regulations, but there’s no reason to support a filibuster and prevent a vote.

As for arguments against the bill itself? Manchin-Toomey was a modest package designed to keep guns away from convicted criminals and the mentally ill. It placed no restrictions on gun manufacturers, and explicitly outlawed a national gun registry—a key fear of the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates. It was a small bore measure meant to patch a few of the holes in our system.

The fury from gun-control advocates came immediately. “They looked at these most benign and practical of solutions, offered by moderates from each party, and then they looked over their shoulder at the powerful, shadowy gun lobby—and brought shame on themselves and our government itself by choosing to do nothing,” wrote former Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords, herself a victim of gun violence.

President Obama responded in kind. “[T]he gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill,” he said in a rare flash of anger. “There were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn’t do this. It came down to politics,” he continued. His message for opponents of expanded background checks? Disdain—“[A]ll in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington”—coupled with a threat, that if Congress didn’t act to reflect the views of most Americans, most Americans would elect a Congress that did. “I see this as just round one,” concluded Obama, “Sooner or later we are going to get this right. The memories of these children demand it, and so do the American people.”

This has all the makings of a manifesto, a promise to push harder for new gun laws. But as we’ve seen, the bully pulpit is only so powerful—lawmakers act according to their own interests, and can’t be pushed by presidential rhetoric.

But while Obama can’t bend Congress to his will, he can influence the national agenda. And the Senate filibuster of expanded background checks affords him a chance to put filibuster reform in the national conversation, as a means to end gridlock and restore functionality to the Senate. He mentioned it in passing yesterday—“[B]y this continuing distortion of Senate rules, a minority was able to block it from moving forward”—but now is the time to make it a priority. His demand from the State of the Union—“These proposals deserve a vote”—ought to become his line on every priority, from immigration reform to action on climate change.

Ultimately, the only thing that will break the impasse is for one side or the other to win, which is why Obama has thrown himself into raising money and campaigning for congressional candidates. In the meantime, however, there’s no harm in agitating for filibuster reform. We’ve lived with the 60-vote Senate for four years—it’s time for it to end.