Democrats Face Gun Legislation Dilemma as Support for House Background Check Bill Breaks Down 

Filibuster politics could prevent bipartisan agreement

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March 29, 2021

Senate Democrats punted on taking up House gun-control bills on Friday, acknowledging that the restrictions put forward by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) were "dead on arrival," according to senior Senate aides.

Facing pressure from gun-control activists and Democratic elected officials alike, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) told colleagues on Thursday he would bring background check legislation to the floor shortly after the Senate returns for business on April 12.  But with Sens. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), Jon Tester (D., Mont.), and Susan Collins (R., Maine) publicly stating their opposition to House-passed background check bill H.R. 8, Democrats must find a viable replacement. The political environment makes that a nearly impossible task, according to multiple Senate aides. 

A senior Republican aide said H.R. 8's requirement that licensed gun dealers perform background checks nearly every time someone sells or even lends a gun to another person is a non-starter. 

"H.R. 8 is just dead on arrival," a senior Republican staffer said. "Period. It doesn't have the votes. Not only does it not have the votes quietly it doesn't have the votes loudly because Manchin and Toomey are out there opposing it." 

Staunch opposition has led to speculation that Democratic leadership will revive a bipartisan 2013 bill that would only apply background checks to private sales. Democratic threats to abolish the filibuster to ram through gun-control legislation could alienate Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), a sponsor of the 2013 background check bill, according to a senior aide.

"Senator Toomey is not interested in playing political games or being an example in a background check exercise," the aide said. "He's interested in achieving an actual outcome." 

In 2013, Toomey not only cosponsored the amendment to extend background checks to private sales but also played a leading role in selling the policy to voters and fellow senators. He was able to convince four Republican colleagues to vote for the proposal despite strong opposition from the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups. The amendment failed to meet the 60-vote threshold to break the filibuster. Toomey, a key swing vote in the Senate, said Democrats should put forward a background check bill that reflects a bipartisan consensus, according to the aide.

"He's interested in a consensus product, he's not interested in political theater," the Toomey aide said. "He's not interested in helping lead a project that's just ultimately doomed to fail." 

Other Senate staffers remained skeptical a background check compromise could get to 60 votes but said they could see different bipartisan gun proposals getting there. They pointed to Toomey's cosponsor on the 2013 legislation, Manchin, as the man who can help moderate the proposals in an evenly split Senate.

"I think Toomey and Manchin would like to get to yes on something but it sounds like the House bill is a bridge too far," a third senior Republican Senate staffer said. 

Democrats have begun to make overtures toward a bipartisan deal. Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) said on Thursday he and Schumer will "spend the next several weeks working with both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to try to craft the strongest background checks bill that can pass." Schumer has struck a different tone, warning that Democrats will move legislation without any Republican support. 

"We will try to work with our Republican colleagues on a bipartisan basis when and where we can," Schumer said on Thursday. "But if they choose to obstruct, rather than work with us to deliver for American families, we must make progress nonetheless. Failure is not an option." 

The Republicans said it is largely up to Schumer how things will unfold in April. If he pursues a compromise solution with Republicans like Toomey and Democrats like Manchin leading the way, there may be room to find a 60-vote bill. Such a bill would have to balance Republican concessions, such as red flag laws, against progressive policy goals, such as AR-15 bans, in order to pass.

"Does Schumer want to actually come to the table and talk about stricter enforcement on straw purchases?" one staffer asked. "Does he want to talk about some of the gun restraining order proposals that had strong due process checks in them? Or does he just want to keep trying to run up against the filibuster and score political points?"