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On this issue, even Joe Manchin and public opinion can’t move the GOP

Bipartisan negotiations, broad nationwide support haven’t moved enough Republicans on gun background checks

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III worries the transition to clean energy will leave his state's coal miners behind.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III worries the transition to clean energy will leave his state's coal miners behind. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats often discuss two paths to winning Republican support on legislation the GOP is likely to oppose: old-fashioned relationship building and negotiations, or public and political pressure.

West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III, who has emerged as a key swing vote in the 50-50 Senate, is determined to continue pushing the former. And as long as Manchin refuses to get rid of the filibuster, Democrats are hoping the latter will move GOP votes their way.

But you need only look to one issue to see the flaws in both strategies: legislation to expand background checks on gun purchases.

The bipartisan agreement Manchin is most known for is a deal he and Pennsylvania Republican Patrick J. Toomey brokered in 2013 to close loopholes in existing law that allow people who purchase firearms at gun shows or on the internet to avoid background checks.

House Democrats last week again passed their preferred background checks bill, which would close those same loopholes but go further in requiring background checks for private, person-to-person sales. That includes sales among family members, although it exempts firearms provided as a “loan or bona fide gift” between immediate and some extended family.

The House vote on what Democrats call “universal background checks” was 227-203. Eight Republicans joined all but one Democrat in supporting the bill.

Around 90 percent of the American people support expanding background checks, Democrats like to say, citing public polling. Those polls, however, are often conducted in the wake of mass shootings and could be skewed by those events. 

For example, a 2018 Gallup poll conducted shortly after 17 people were shot dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., found that 92 percent of respondents favored requiring background checks for all gun sales. That’s 4 points lower than the 96 percent of Gallup respondents who said the same in 2017 after 60 people were killed at a Las Vegas concert.

But such support has not translated into Republican votes.

Two years ago, the House GOP Conference was smaller than it is today, but still only eight Republicans supported the Democrats’ universal background checks bill. 

Two of them, Florida’s Mario Diaz-Balart and Brian Mast, backed the measure in February 2019 but voted against it last week. Another, Illinois’ Adam Kinzinger, switched from “no” to “yes.” That net loss and the absence of two retired Republicans who supported the 2019 bill were offset with “yes” votes from three GOP freshmen.

‘Limits’ of bipartisanship

The last time the Senate considered background checks legislation was in June 2016 after a gunman killed 49 people at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub.

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., offered the universal background checks proposal as one of four side-by-side amendments to an appropriations bill. The Senate rejected all four proposals to strengthen existing gun laws. Three Democrats —- Manchin, Montana’s Jon Tester and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp — joined all but one Republican, Illinois’ Mark S. Kirk, in defeating the Murphy amendment, 44-56. 

The 2016 effort did not feature a serious attempt at bipartisan compromise, like the 2013 negotiations a few months after 20 children and six adults were killed in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The 2013 Manchin-Toomey proposal was supposed to have the support of the National Rifle Association, but the gun lobby walked away from the deal after securing several concessions from Manchin. 

Ultimately, the Senate rejected the Manchin-Toomey amendment, 54-46. Technically, however, it had the support of 55 senators since Harry Reid, the majority leader at the time, changed his vote at the last minute to preserve his ability to call up the measure again.

The failure of the Manchin-Toomey proposal showed that bipartisan negotiations will only get Democrats so far, especially with the 60-vote threshold required to end debate on most bills. 

“Even though [Manchin] had the agreement with Toomey, I believe we had 54, 55 votes, which is not sufficient,” Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen told CQ Roll Call. “So I do think it shows, unfortunately, the limits of that approach.”

“This is another example of, in my view, why we need to jettison the antiquated filibuster,” he added.

Even Manchin acknowledges the difficulty of reaching bipartisan agreement on background checks, or most other issues Democrats prioritize. But that hasn’t dampened his resolve to negotiate or his refusal to get rid of the filibuster.

“It’s hard getting bipartisan support for anything,” he told CQ Roll Call last week. “I keep working. I don’t give up. I’m determined.”

‘Don’t take all my rights away’

Manchin thinks the House background checks bill goes too far, but he’s interested in reprising the legislation he and Toomey crafted to require checks for commercial gun purchases. 

“Commercial means only closing the loopholes at gun shows and on the internet,” Manchin said. “Law-abiding gun owners aren’t going to sell their guns to strangers. That’s how we’re taught. We’re not going to loan guns to strangers or even to family members who aren’t responsible. We’re not doing that, so don’t take all my rights away.”

He and Toomey would need to win over more senators if their effort is to be successful.

“He has to get some more Republicans, that’s for sure,” Manchin said. 

Toomey said last week he still supports closing commercial background check loopholes, but he’s not had recent discussions with Manchin or other Democrats about it.

As to whether there’s a broader appetite for bipartisanship on the issue, Toomey said, “We’ll have to find out.”

Four Republicans voted for the Manchin-Toomey amendment in 2013, but it fell six votes short of the 60 needed, in part because five Democrats voted against it. All five of those Democrats, including Reid who only voted “no” for procedural reasons, are no longer in Congress. 

Of the Republicans who supported it, only Toomey and Maine’s Susan Collins are still in the Senate. 

Collins told CQ Roll Call she’d support the Manchin-Toomey proposal again if it’s drafted like the 2013 amendment, but she opposes the House bill. Neither party has brought up background checks with her, however.

“I have not had any discussions on this issue with anyone except reporters,” Collins said last week. 

‘See where everybody stands’

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer hasn’t given Manchin much room to initiate bipartisan negotiations, announcing last week that he intends to bring the House’s universal background checks bill, dubbed HR 8, to the floor.

“The legislative graveyard is over,” the New York Democrat said, referring to his party’s nickname for the GOP-controlled Senate last Congress. “HR 8 will be on the floor of the Senate, and we will see where everybody stands.”

“Maybe we’ll get the votes,” Schumer added. “And if we don’t, we’ll come together as a caucus and figure out how we’re going to get this done.”

Manchin and Tester, the two remaining Democrats who voted against universal background checks in 2016, both said they hadn’t seen the House bill. While Manchin still opposes requiring background checks for private sales, Tester said he’s open to closing that loophole so long as there are exceptions for gifts to family members, which the House bill provides.

No Senate Republicans are expected to support universal background checks.

“It’s unlikely that would get 60 votes in the Senate, and I don’t know where those votes come from,” Minority Whip John Thune told CQ Roll Call. 

The South Dakota Republican acknowledged the polling showing broad support for expanding background checks, before noting, “That’s certainly not true in my state.” Thune said there is a “tangible fear” among his constituents that President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats will come after their Second Amendment rights.

While Democrats say requiring more background checks would not violate those rights, Republicans worry about a slippery slope. “There’s also the concern too, if you do this, then the next thing you have is a national gun registry,” Indiana Sen. Mike Braun said.

Still, gun control proponents are hopeful for Republican support, as they insist the politics have changed significantly since 2013. 

“It’s a different universe. The modern anti-gun violence movement did not exist,” Murphy told CQ Roll Call, citing the recent proliferation of grassroots groups. “And you hadn’t had successive elections where the voters made it clear that they want gun violence legislation passed.”

Murphy said he hasn’t started formal bipartisan negotiations but sees the House background checks bill as the starting point, not the Manchin-Toomey proposal. 

As Senate Democrats press their agenda, background checks legislation is “one of several incredibly popular policy proposals that are going to test the theory that the filibuster promotes bipartisanship,” Murphy said. 

“It would be pretty stunning if you couldn’t get 60 senators to support something that has 95 percent support,” he said. “It would certainly be a proof point that something’s wrong with the Senate.” 

Manchin doesn’t see it that way. However frustrating his efforts get, he insists he won’t be swayed to nuke the filibuster.

“I’ve got patience in droves,” Manchin said. “We’re staying with the filibuster.”

Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.

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