Gun Debate Reveals Pitfalls of Filibuster Overhaul

Murphy: ‘I was a proponent of filibuster reform before yesterday. I’m now a revolutionary’

Posted April 18, 2013 at 6:12pm

This week’s floor votes on guns show how different the Senate world might look without filibuster threats — for better or for worse.

Proponents of changing the Senate rules used Wednesday’s vote on expanding background checks for gun purchases as the latest sign that the chamber should curtail the filibuster rules, but other votes showed simple majorities in favor of a host of provisions those same senators oppose.

President Barack Obama raised the rules question in his remarks in the Rose Garden shortly after the Senate rejected a background check compromise, despite the fact that 54 lawmakers voted in favor of a compromise on expanded checks championed by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III and Pennsylvania Republican Patrick J. Toomey.

“A majority of senators voted ‘yes’ to protecting more of our citizens with smarter background checks,” Obama said. “But by this continuing distortion of Senate rules, a minority was able to block it from moving forward.”

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a freshman Democrat from Connecticut, has emerged as a leading voice on gun control issues in the aftermath of December’s mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. He now says he will focus his attention on rewriting the rules, as well.

“I was a proponent of filibuster reform before yesterday. I’m now a revolutionary,” Murphy told CQ Roll Call. “You know, I don’t think there’s ever been a bigger disconnect between where the American public is on an issue and where the Senate ended up.”

The Senate defeated several amendments that Murphy supported, including the background check agreement. Murphy said the difficulty of getting to 60 votes — required under a unanimous consent agreement because that’s the margin that would have been required to overcome a filibuster — has refocused his attention on the Senate’s operating procedures.

“I’m going to be talking to Leader Reid about trying to take another crack at changing the rules,” Murphy said.

Majority Leader Harry Reid has recently expressed some openness to revisiting the bipartisan package of narrowly crafted rules changes adopted in January, but the Nevada Democrat’s comments on that subject were directed to majority requirements for confirming judicial nominations, not handling legislative business.

While a simple majority threshold would have ensured adoption of the background check amendment, it also would have helped a provision that many gun control advocates opposed. Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn offered an amendment to allow gun owners with concealed carry permits to carry their weapons into other states with concealed carry laws on the books. Cornyn’s amendment garnered 57 votes in support.

“In the Senate, anybody can object and require a 60-vote threshold, and that’s just the way the rules are, so we can moan and groan about it, but that’s the threshold we have to meet,” Cornyn said.

“You’ve got to take the good with the bad when it comes to democracy, and you know, the people of this country deserve to have the majority of citizens … get their way,” Murphy said, when asked about the level of support for Cornyn’s proposal.

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island advocates for changing the rules to cut back on the systemic 60-vote requirement, but he noted the risks.

“There’s always going to be a little good with the bad when you’re changing rules,” Whitehouse said in reference to Cornyn’s proposal. “I don’t know — if it would have gotten 51 if it had actually been destined to pass with 51 votes because people think sometimes differently when a bill’s not passing anyway.”

One look at the vote outcomes on the various gun amendments shows how difficult it could be to corral senators from disparate geographic areas. A Republican background check alternative proposed by several GOP senators, including Judiciary ranking member Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and freshman Ted Cruz of Texas, garnered a simple majority of support.

The House prevents such contradictory vote outcomes by regulating the flow of amendments through a Rules Committee that regulates floor activity at the behest of the speaker. The Senate currently has no such equal, though one might be needed — either that, or the majority leader in that theoretical Senate would be in the position of having to block some amendments from ever seeing a vote.

Some gun control supporters have gone beyond criticizing the routine use of 60-vote supermajorities in the Senate to raising questions about the Senate itself, perhaps realizing that changing the rules could create a whole different kind of distorted result. An item earlier this week in the New Republic raised the possibility that the kind of firearms law changes envisioned by Murphy, Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal and others could never materialize in the modern Senate because of the clout of rural states.

That comes from the very organization of the Senate. Perhaps ironically, given that the most recent debate on firearms stems from a tragedy at a Connecticut elementary school, it was two statesmen from the Nutmeg State who brokered the compromise that led to the creation of a bicameral legislature in the first place.