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Gun Amendment: Poison Pill or Silver Bullet?

Senate passage of a gun-rights amendment to legislation giving the District of Columbia voting representation in the House of Representatives prompted House Democratic leaders to pull the bill two weeks ago. Some news accounts called the gun amendment a “poison pill amendment,— but was it really?

[IMGCAP(1)]Usually that term is synonymous with “killer amendment— — something that makes a measure so odious to the bill’s supporters that they can’t swallow it on final passage. But, in this case, it was responsible for putting the measure over by a wide margin in the Senate, 61-37, after the gun amendment was adopted, 62-36. Moreover, the gun amendment would likely get comparable support in the House, making it more a silver bullet than a poison pill.

Yes, such amendments are anathema to House Democratic leaders, and they’re the ones calling the scheduling shots. However, the bill that House leaders pulled was not the Senate-passed measure. It was a House-reported bill with no gun provision in it. And the leaders had indicated that they were not going to allow any amendments on the floor.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he withdrew the bill from floor consideration on March 3 because he wasn’t sure whether he had the votes to adopt a special rule that denied a vote on the gun issue. Even though the gun amendment was not germane to the bill, House defeat of a no-amendment rule would force the matter back to the Rules Committee, which could then protect the gun amendment with a germaneness waiver.

How can we speculate about how things might play out? It’s easy. Just crank your memory back two years to March 2007, the last time a nearly identical D.C. vote bill was considered. I even wrote a column about it at the time (“Democrats’ D.C. Vote Fix Backfires in Gun Law Blowup,— April 9, 2007). Because the bill added a House seat for D.C. and Utah (the next state in line to receive an additional Representative), an offset was needed under the pay-as-you-go rules for the salary that would be paid to the new Utah Member. (D.C.’s Delegate already receives the same amount of pay as other Members.)

That small additional tax on the wealthy inserted into the bill broadened the scope of the legislation and thereby opened the door for an otherwise nongermane gun-rights amendment in the motion to recommit with instructions. Before it could be voted on, though, the Speaker pulled the bill.

A month later, in April 2007, a similar measure was brought to the House floor, although this time the tax offset was contained in a separate bill to avoid another gun amendment. The D.C. voting rights bill and the tax bill were considered under the same special rule, with no amendments allowed. Both bills passed handily, but then died by filibuster in the Senate.

What brought the D.C. gun issue back to life in the 110th Congress was the Supreme Court decision on June 26, 2008, in D.C. v. Heller, which found the District’s gun ban unconstitutional. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) pushed for consideration of a bill by Arkansas Democratic Rep. Mike Ross (along with 248 co-sponsors) “to restore Second Amendment rights in the District of Columbia.— Souder began collecting signatures for a discharge petition on the special rule on July 24, and by the August recess, he had 166 Members (a majority of 218 is needed to discharge a measure from committee).

In an effort to head off the Souder-Ross effort, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee reported a bill introduced by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) shortly after the August recess. It required the District of Columbia government to revise its gun laws and regulations within 180 days to conform to the Supreme Court decision. (D.C. has since made the changes, though not to the liking of the National Rifle Association.)

The Rules Committee allowed one substitute to the Norton bill — an amendment by Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.), the Second Amendment Enforcement Act, that directly amended D.C. laws and regulations to permit District residents to own and possess handguns, semiautomatic weapons and ammunition at their homes, businesses and properties.

Childers, who had just won a special election in May 2008 in a previously Republican-held district, had co-sponsored the Ross bill in late June and had introduced his own version in late July. Now he was being allowed by the leadership to offer the only amendment to the Norton bill — an honor the leadership often bestows on vulnerable freshman Members. The Childers amendment was adopted, 260-160, and the bill then passed by an even wider margin. But it was blocked in the Senate by Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on grounds that it had not been properly considered by any committee.

This year’s scenario is unfolding in much the same way, with Childers waiting in the wings with an NRA-backed gun amendment. Hoyer predicted last Tuesday that the D.C. voting rights bill will be enacted this year. Don’t be surprised if the Childers amendment gets considered as a separate bill first, paving the way for a clean up-or-down vote on the Norton bill. But that would send both bills back to the Senate for a likely double homicide by filibuster.

House leaders would be better advised to take up the Senate-passed bill with the gun amendment and pass it as is, thereby sending it directly to the president. The sooner it is held unconstitutional (which is likely), the sooner Congress can get around to doing the right thing, the right way — passing a constitutional amendment giving District residents a long overdue vote in the House.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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