Showdown at Uzi Gulch: Putting the Glock in the Spiel

The Senate is considering a continuing resolution (CR) that both extends funding operations of the federal government through the rest of the fiscal year (Sept. 30, 2013) and also makes permanent several provisions that stymie enforcement of gun control laws. While the reality is that the provisions in the Senate bill do not represent a significant change in the day-to-day enforcement of gun control, making the provisions permanent represents a significant step “backward” in light of the Newtown school massacre and the 57% of Americans who favor renewing the ban on assault weapons and the 52% who favor “stricter gun control laws.”

So, what’s the strategy here?  First, it is important to remember that the CR is a very potent vehicle: Obama could veto it, as Clinton did in 1995, causing the federal government to “shut down” during his struggles with the GOP-controlled 104th Congress.  However, given (1) the fiscal cliff debate & currently ongoing sequester and (2) the fact that the Democrats hold a majority of seats in the Senate, the analogy between the two situations is not a perfect one.  Simply put, it is not clear that Obama would win the “public approval game” following a veto as Clinton did.

But the more important point is that Senate Democrats are facing a very “tough map” in the upcoming 2014 midterm elections. In particular, at least 7 Democratic seats are up for election in closely divided states where support for tougher gun control is probably not a winning electoral gambit, ceteris paribus: Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa (open seat), Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, and South Dakota.  So including these provisions might actually be a gift to Obama in some ways.  Democrats so electorally disposed can reaffirm their anti-gun control bona fides by voting for this CR and Republicans can more easily explain their vote to fund the government as a pro-gun rights vote. More interestingly, however, are two strategic possibilities that might come up as this story unfolds over the next week.

  1. A Senator’s anti-gun control bona fides would arguably be even better established by voting for an amendment that would strip the anti-gun control provisions.
  2. Similarly, a Senator’s pro-gun control bona fides could be similarly established by voting for an amendment in line with an even-more-anti-gun control provision rumored to be supported by some in the House.

These possibilities highlight an awesome implication of the Senate’s supermajority (“60 vote”) requirement for cloture.  Specifically, Reid and McConnell can broker an agreement (known as a unanimous consent agreement, or UCA) under which a pro-gun control amendment and an anti-gun control amendment are each considered and debated for a fixed amount of time and then voted upon, with each amendment requiring 60 votes to be approved. This agreement would allow Senators to vote for and/or against gun control measures while posing no real threat to the underlying CR, which is needed prior to March 27th.

Note that this type of UCA is not just some theoretical creature—it has already been used during the consideration of this bill.  And, furthermore, in line with the yarn I am spinning, the amendment in question* (sponsored by the retiring Senator Harkin from Iowa) failed with a majority of votes on a party line vote.  Thus, even though everyone presumably knew this amendment would fail under the terms of the UCA, it was nonetheless duly considered and the subject of a roll call vote. Finally, the starting point of my fantastic tale of legislative chicanery is that THAT VOTE IS THE POINT.  By agreeing to push the supermajority requirement back from ending debate to actual passage, Senators can go “on the record” about a majority-favored policy change with a vote that changes nothing.

We’ll see what Reid and McConnell do, but note that the consideration of Harkin’s amendment is telling in many respects, particularly given the huge number of amendments that have already been submitted to the CR and the queue of gun control bills now awaiting consideration, each of which could be considered under this type of UCA as well, of course.

With that, I leave you with this.


* For the curious, Harkin’s amendment was complicated, but Harkin’s summary of it from the floor (Congressional Record, p. S1742) included these interests:

special education, childcare subsidies, The Ryan White AIDS Drug Assistance Program, suicide prevention, aid for first-in-their-family college students, food safety, lead poisoning screening for kids in this country, diabetes prevention, and worker safety.

What is really interesting to me about this amendment was that it was essentially the substance of the Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill that had been negotiated between the chambers a few months ago minus appropriations for the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), a point that Harkin clearly and repeatedly expressed in his comments on the amendment.

Harkin’s amendment thus allowed Democrats to vote in favor of some clear Democratic “issues” without making them vote in favor of Obamacare. I’ll leave that for another day, but note that Ted Cruz’s amendment the CR to defund Obamacare entirely was rejected on a similar party-line vote.  And, furthermore, note that the absence of Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV (!!)) for this vote and the hubbub surrounding his non-vote on this amendent underscores the electoral dynamic at play on these types of votes.