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Meet the lawmakers who didn’t stick to their parties’ position on guns

Eight Republicans and two Democrats crossed the aisle on Wednesday

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has blocked about 70 people from commenting on his campaign committee’s Facebook page, a civil rights organization said. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has blocked about 70 people from commenting on his campaign committee’s Facebook page, a civil rights organization said. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

With the help of eight Republicans, the Democratically-controlled House on Wednesday passed new gun safety legislation that would expand background checks.

And while the legislation isn’t likely to go anywhere in the Senate, it was a top priority for many new Democratic members who came to power last fall by making gun safety a salient campaign issue. An overwhelming majority of Americans support universal background checks.

The eight Republicans who crossed the aisle to support the legislation were: Reps. Vern Buchanan, Mario Diaz-Balart and Brian Mast of Florida, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Will Hurd of Texas, Peter T. King of New York, Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey and Fred Upton of Michigan. King has long been the lead Republican co-sponsor of the measure. Five of the eight Republicans signed on as co-sponsors to the legislation California Democrat Mike Thompson introduced last month. 

Just two Democrats — Minnesota Rep. Collin C. Peterson and Maine Rep. Jared Golden — voted against the bill. Both hail from rural districts that backed President Donald Trump in 2016. 

Wednesday’s vote underscores the ways in which the rural-urban divide sometimes overrides partisan politics. The House is voting on another gun safety bill on Thursday that would increase the maximum waiting period for background checks to be completed.

 Party defectors 

As one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, it’s not surprising Peterson bucked his party on final passage of the background check legislation. He’s largely regarded as the last Democrat who can hold onto his rural and agrarian district that backed Trump by about 30 points in 2016.

In such a conservative district, even this Blue Dog has had some recent close calls, winning by single digits the past two cycles against an underfunded Republican who ran without national party support. The National Republican Congressional Committee is targeting the 7th District in 2020. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Leans Democratic

Peterson has been in the House for 15 terms. But the other Democrat who bucked his party is a freshman. Golden flipped Maine’s 2nd District last fall, defeating two-term Republican Bruce Poliquin. To win a district that Trump carried by 10 points, the former state legislator and Marine veteran played up his connections to the sprawling rural district, where gun rights are important to voters. Golden even aired a TV ad showing him firing a rifle. He’ll be another GOP target in 2020. Inside Elections rates his race Tilts Democratic.

“Maine isn’t Chicago, Washington, or New York,” Golden said in a statement after the vote. “For many of my constituents, access to firearms is a necessary part of daily life and we have a tradition of responsible gun ownership.”

Golden explained that the House bill was a “near mirror image” of a ballot initiative that voters in all eleven counties in his district rejected in 2016. 

Two of the three Republicans who represent districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016 — Hurd and Fitzpatrick — sided with Democrats in supporting the legislation. The third, New York Rep. John Katko, did not vote. All three Republicans are Democratic targets in 2020. Inside Elections rates Hurd’s race a Toss-up, Fitzpatrick’s Tilts Republican, and Katko’s Leans Republican.

Among the other Republicans who crossed the aisle, Democrats are also targeting Mast, King and Upton.

Mast, a two-term Republican, came out in support of an assault weapons ban in a New York Times op-ed last year. He easily survived re-election in 2018. Inside Elections rates his race Solid Republican. King and Upton both represent suburban districts. King especially has been outspoken about bucking his party on this issue. Inside Elections rates both of their races Likely Republican. 

Besides Mast, neither of the two other Florida Republicans who backed the legislation are Democratic targets. In Florida’s 16th District, Buchanan won a seventh term by 9 points last fall. Inside Elections rates his race Solid Republican. Democratic efforts to target Diaz-Balart in the 25th District also fell short last fall. Inside Elections rates his race Solid Republican. 

With Democrats having flipped four seats in New Jersey last fall, Smith is the only Republican left in the state. He represents a district that Trump carried comfortably and isn’t a Democratic target in 2020. 

Procedural hurdle 

Before final passage of the Bipartisan Background Check Act of 2019 on Wednesday, 26 Democrats joined Republicans in voting for a procedural motion that would add language to require the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to be notified if an undocumented immigrant tries to buy a gun. Many of these Democrats are Republican targets in 2020. 

This is now the second Republican motion to recommit that Democrats have helped approve this Congress. The first was a motion adopted earlier this month to add language to a resolution on removing U.S. armed forces assisting the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen asserting that “it is in the national security interest of the United States to combat anti-Semitism around the world.”

The motion to recommit is a procedural tool of the House minority, and it is typically used to message against a measure offered by the majority. The fact that Democrats are helping Republicans adopt these motions shows the strength of the GOP’s messaging and moderate Democrats’ fear over being attacked on those points.

Thompson, the sponsor of the bill, didn’t fault the 26 Democrats who supported the motion, saying, “Those motions to recommit put some people in a tough spot. That’s what the Republicans were trying to do, and it worked 26 times.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi downplayed the significance of Democrats helping approve the Republican motion to recommit, calling it “incidental.”

“It was a surprise, but it’s not to eclipse a tremendous victory today,” the California Democrat said. 

Pelosi did, however, acknowledge that Democratic leaders may need to do a better job educating their members about the function of motions to recommit.

“We want to make sure people understand,” she said. “Sometimes a motion to recommit can change the privilege a bill has going to the other body.”

That’s what happened after the motion to recommit on the Yemen resolution was agreed to. It poisoned the measure’s procedural advantages under the War Powers Resolution when it reached the Senate, meaning that it would need 60 votes in order to overcome hurdles on the Senate floor. As a result, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is going to reintroduce the base text of the joint resolution, and the House will eventually need to vote again on the Yemen measure.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. Watch: What race ratings really mean and how we create them