Is there any better sign of the deep dysfunction of the Republican-controlled Congress than the fact that Democrats had to filibuster to force a vote?
Wednesday, Sen. Chris Murphy, frustrated by Senate Republicans refusing to let even the smallest gun control bills onto the floor for a vote, decided to conduct a filibuster aimed at halting all Senate activity until the GOP caved and let the votes happen. Murphy held the floor for nearly 15 hours, often standing beside other Democratic senators as they spoke, but never sitting down, lest he lose the floor. The filibuster is reportedly the 9th longest in the Senate's history.
— Melissa Raymond (@raymondreports) June 16, 2016
But it's obviously the most unusual, in that the filibuster traditionally is used to prevent a vote, usually on a bill, but occasionally on a confirmation of a nominee. It's a straightforward process: A senator, unwilling to let a bill go to vote out of fear that it will pass, refuses to give up the floor during debate, hoping that if he talks long enough, he can block the vote from coming to the floor.
Texas state senator Wendy Davis recently used this tactic successfully against a highly restrictive anti-abortion bill, speaking for nearly 13 hours, without food or drink or bathroom breaks, running out the clock on the legislative session and stopping the bill from going to a vote. (The governor ended up calling another special session just to pass the bill, but Davis's stunt helped highlight how obsessed Republicans are with controlling the uteruses of America.)
But what Murphy did was different, and he deserves credit for creative thinking: Instead of filibustering to stop a bill, he used the filibuster to strong-arm Republicans into allowing two gun control measures to be put to a vote in the wake of the horrific Orlando shooting that took the lives of 49 people.
That it's come to this shouldn't be a surprise, however. Under the leadership of Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republicans have taken the philosophy of obstructionism to new heights.
Granted, blocking a bill from a floor vote is an everyday and normal form of legislative politicking. The real problem, when it comes to McConnell's obstructionist strategy is the record-setting unwillingness of Republican senators to confirm President Obama's nominees for federal judgeships, which has led to dozens of seats remaining unfilled. But the blocking of this bill is just a small symptom of the overall problem, making this filibuster effort the fabled straw that broke the camel's back.
Early this morning, around 2AM, the filibuster ended, with Republicans leadership caving and agreeing to allow two gun control bills up for a floor vote.
It remains to be seen if Murphy's play will do much, generally, to stop Republican obstructionism. But there's a strong chance that this move will help shake things up when it comes to the issue of gun control. For years now, even as the nation endures one terrible mass shooting after another, the issue has been defined politically as one of gridlock. Pro-gun forces own the Republican party so absolutely that there's just been no chance of getting anything done to make it even slightly harder for people with mass murder intentions to get the firepower necessary to mow down dozens of people in minutes.
But the fact that Republican senators were reluctant to let these bills go up for a vote, which creates a record of where they stand, suggests they are starting to worry about paying a political price for resisting even the tiniest efforts at making guns even slightly harder for terrorism-minded people to get.
They should be worried. While there still isn't the political will to bring our country in line with other industrialized nations, which tend to have extensive bans on all sorts of weaponry, more minor gun control provisions are wildly popular. One of the bills Murphy is trying to force a vote on, which requires background checks on guns bought at gun shows and online, is supported by 9 out of 10 Americans.
But many Republicans are wary of voting for even that minor bill, because the NRA has made it quite clear that they are going to play dirty when it comes to fighting any bill, no matter how minor, that might reduce sales for the gun industry.
The NRA put out an "Urgent Action Alert!" on Wednesday.
"The NRA has just learned that Senators Schumer, Feinstein and other anti-gun elected officials are going to offer several anti-gun bills and amendments this week in the U.S. Congress, possibly as soon as today!" the alert reads. "These measures are wide-ranging and include an attempt to reinstate the failed federal ban on semi-automatic firearms, commonly referred to as the 'assault weapons ban.'"
The alert is incorrect, unsurprisingly. Feinstein introduced an amendment aimed at stopping people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns, citing a GAO report showing that 91% of people on the list who attempted to buy guns successfully passed a background check and were able to get all the weaponry they wanted.
The other bill that Democrats are trying to pass is the requirement that background checks cover gun shows and online sales. There is nothing about an assault weapons ban in there, though the popularity of using the AR-15 for those who want to kill as many innocent civilians as possible in a short period of time does suggest that Democrats should be doing more to ban those gun sales outright.
Odds aren't great that either of these bills become law. Pro-gun hysteria is far too out of control, and Republicans know better than anyone that even the smallest, most commonsensical measures will be interpreted by the gun fanatic base as an effort to "take their guns".
Yes, even if those same people, in a moment of sober-minded reflection, would agree that we should have background checks on all gun sales. The gun debate is not conducted on the plane of rationality. It's about identity politics and psychosexual right wing fears about the "libs" and the black President coming to emasculate them.
But that's all the more reason for Democrats to keep the heat turned up on Republicans. They're the ones who spent decades stoking right wing paranoia for political gain. Now they don't want to own the political consequences for selling out to the gun industry and the crazies. Well, too bad. Hopefully, this filibuster is a sign that the Democrats will continue to force political accountability for those who made it so easy for Omar Mateen to buy the gun he used to snuff out 49 lives in the course of a few hours.