Democrats finally achieve a win on guns. Will they regret it?

Historic wins or embarrassing setbacks? Actually, the House Democratic majority had both at once this week

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published March 3, 2019 6:00AM (EST)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Nancy Pelosi (Getty//Don Emmert/Zach Gibson)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Nancy Pelosi (Getty//Don Emmert/Zach Gibson)

As Democrats finally exacted some oversight over the Trump administration for the first time in two years by grilling Michael Cohen on Capitol Hill about his former boss’ mob-like tactics in the White House, Democrats in both chambers of Congress suffered embarrassing setbacks this week — even while celebrating historic wins.  

In the Senate, Republicans jettisoned a century-old tradition of seeking the consent of home-state senators, known as the “blue slip” courtesy, before confirming a judicial nominee. The Judiciary Committee chair literally seeks the home-state senators’ position on a blue slip of paper, and no appeals court judge had been confirmed in recent political history without the support of at least one home-state senator -- until this week.

So despite the public objections of Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, the two Democrats who represent Washington state in the senior chamber, Senate Republicans confirmed Trump nominee Eric Miller this week as a judge on the country’s most liberal appeals court. Murray and Cantwell were concerned about Miller's rejection of tribal sovereignty, and had been lobbied hard by Native Americans.

“The far right wing has continued their court packing campaign and, in the process, shredded a century-old tradition that helps ensure an independent and non-partisan judiciary," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., in a statement. "This vote puts partisanship and ideology over the health of our democracy. It’s a dark day for America – and this is a decision that Republicans will deeply regret once the shoe is on the other foot.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, echoed this sentiment: “It is regrettable and likely will result in more ideological nominees who don’t reflect the values of their home states," she said. "It’s hard to not see this action coming back to bite Republicans when they’re no longer in power in the Senate.”

Democrats’ objections, however, fell on deaf ears.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that his priority “is to confirm as many circuit judges as possible" while President Trump is in office. He told the conservative Federalist Society last fall that “confirmation is a political decision based on who controls the Senate.”

In the House, where Democrat Nancy Pelosi controls the gavel, far less party discipline and much more deference to the rules, was on display this week, even as that handicapped the Democratic agenda. 

Democrats celebrated the passage of the first significant legislation regulating the purchase of firearms by any chamber of Congress in more than two decades. Eight Republicans voted with Democrats in the House to pass a background check expansion bill to include firearms purchased at gun shows, online or in a private transaction on Wednesday. The previous Republican majority had blocked similar legislation for years. The occasion was marked by cheers and shouts of “Thank you!” from the visitor’s galley, in violation of House rules. The public broadly supports “a background check for every gun sale,” including 79 percent of Republicans, according to Pew Research Center.

But even as Democrats achieved a major win, 26 moderate Democrats broke ranks to side with Republicans on a controversial last-minute addition to the bill. Republicans successfully offered a procedural motion that would require the FBI to alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if an undocumented immigrant tried to obtain a firearm.

That vote looks to have caught Democratic leadership off guard.

From 2011 through 2018, during their eight-year majority in the House, Republicans never once allowed Democrats to pass a single motion to recommit. So far in the 116th Congress, Democrats have already lost two such votes.  

House Republicans tried again on Thursday, introducing a last-minute motion to exempt victims of domestic abuse from a second bill extending the waiting period for an FBI background check to 10 days. But after calls for party unity and threats of public shaming from more pro-gun control members, including freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Democrats only saw two defections. According to the Washington Post, Pelosi scolded the wayward moderate faction in her caucus during a closed-door meeting this week, telling them: "We are either a team or we’re not, and we have to make that decision.”

Still, the splinter faction made up of the party’s moderates, many of them freshmen, suggests that while advocates of gun reform have started to match the activism of reform opponents at the ballot box in recent years, there is still major entrenchment on the issue in parts of the party.

One freshman Democrat who voted for the Republican-backed motions dismissed suggestions of a split in the party. “These little motions and minor bills should not take attention away from the fact that progress is being made to keep people safe,” said Rep. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, one of dozens of co-sponsors of the 10-day waiting period bill. Another freshman Democrat, Lucy McBath of Georgia, won a Trump-friendly district -- once represented by Newt Gingrich -- on an aggressive gun control platform after her teenage son was gunned down in a parking lot.

Democrats have come out of their defensive crouch on the gun issue, introducing dozens of gun violence prevention bills since the start of the 116th Congress. Forty Democrats were elected to replace Republicans and almost every one of them made gun safety an issue in their campaign,

The House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force is nearly three-quarters of the Democratic caucus. Yet the issue remains tricky political terrain for a party that undeniably owes its electoral majority to moderates. Many of the "blue dogs" from rural districts who provided the heart of internal Democratic resistance to gun control in years past have since lost their seats. But they are not extinct.  

Thirty-one House Democrats represent districts that Trump won in 2016, including 26 of the freshmen who helped Democrats take the majority in 2018. Of those, 24 won their Republican-leaning districts with less than 52 percent of the vote.

After Democrats regained the majority in 2006, they shied away from pressing for new gun control measures. During her last speakership from 2007 to 2011, Pelosi did not bring a gun bill to the floor — opting instead to focus on issues like health care, the recession and climate change while her party controlled the White House and both legislative chambers. In 2011, 43 House Democrats voted for NRA-backed legislation to honor concealed-carry rules firearms even in states that did not issue such permits. Even under a Senate controlled by Democrats, a post-Sandy Hook bipartisan effort to expand background checks failed after four Democrats from rural states voted against it.

“We haven’t had any more buy-in from our Republican colleagues at all,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.,  a co-sponsor of the 2012 bill, told the Washington Post this week. Republicans in the Senate, for their part, have shown no signs they plan to bring up the Democrats’ bills. Democrats hope public pressure will eventually prompt action in the Senate.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina has introduced a bill to address what’s known as “the Charleston loophole,” which allowed white supremacist Dylann Roof to purchase the firearm he used to murder nine black church congregants because the FBI could not complete its check within the three-day limit, every year since the 2015 massacre. Still, he splits with Pelosi on party discipline when it comes to Republican motions to embarrass Democrats on controversial issues. Clyburn and other Democrats like Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., have argued that vulnerable Democrats risk their political futures, and control of the House, over some of these measures.

Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat from a rural Wisconsin district and one of seven who voted against Clyburn’s bill, said: “That’s on the government … If we can’t get a good system in place that can deal with it in three days, we need to up our game as a federal government, devote more resources and clean it up and make this as efficient and quick as possible.”

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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