United States Senate at odds over gun control

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Senate Democrats found a small opening in Republicans’ Obamacare repeal strategy and ripped it wide open to force votes on proposed gun regulations.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) calls terror suspect gun regulations a "no-brainer." (Credit: Chance Seales)
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) calls terror suspect gun regulations a “no-brainer.” (Credit: Chance Seales).

Outraged by yet another deadly mass shooting, this time in San Bernardino, California, a group of Democrats set out to make conservatives go on record against what they call “common sense” safety measures, like restricting suspected terrorists from legally purchasing firearms.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, two Democratic stalwarts, helped lead the charge. Both described their state, and themselves, as “heartbroken” over the massacre of 14 innocent people who were killed in the middle of a holiday work party.

Police say the husband and wife attackers pulled the triggers of legally-purchased assault rifles to commit their act of atrocity.

“Again we’re talking about what Congress can do. Or, candidly, what Congress should have done years ago,” said Feinstein.

Boxer chalked up previous congressional inaction to NRA-beholden members’ “lack of courage.” She emotionally recalled her son’s best friend being gunned down in a California law office several years ago, solidifying her resolve to affect change.

“If there was any other thing killing 30,000 of our citizens a year, you know everybody would be on the floor of the United States Senate,” insisted Boxer.

Democrats Force Votes

Democrats’ amendments focused on select provisions rarely given a floor vote in the Republican-led Senate, including: closing the gun show loophole, banning assault weapons and blocking suspected terrorists from buying guns.

“We’re going to show the American public that there is a group of sane people in Washington who realize the status quo is not acceptable,” vowed a visibly angry Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

To repeal major sections of the Affordable Care Act, Senate Republicans are using an arcane procedure called reconciliation. It allows them to repeal budget-related sections of Obamacare with only 51 votes, rather than the usual 60-vote threshold.

Reconciliation also allows for unlimited amendments, stripping the majority party of its ability to control which amendment are proposed, and voted on, by members. So as Republicans enthusiastically maneuver to pass a long-elusive Obamacare repeal, they’re also forced to go on record against broadening gun regulations.

Hidden Trap

Many Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), disagree ideologically. The senator blasted more regulations, saying, “This is not about gun control. If you think the shooting in California is about gun control then you don’t understand what’s going on in the world.”

Other senators, who might be open to some regulations, found themselves in a tight spot, by design.

Since reconciliation is the only available vehicle for a same-day vote, Democrats attached their amendments to the repeal measure, which they didn’t support in the slightest.

To bypass the sticky issue of voting for reconciliation, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) explained that his group wrote their amendments to completely strike Republicans’ repeal language in the underlying bill and replace it with regulatory language written by Democrats.

That left no wiggle room – senators could either vote for expanding gun regulations or repealing Obamacare, but not both.

Common Ground

Knowing the amendments faced certain failure, Feinstein and her colleagues promised to continue pressing for new gun regulations.

Democrats may find Republican allies on another issue raised Thursday: mental health reform.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has warned against the urge to “trample” law-abiding citizens’ Second Amendment rights, saying Thursday that members of Congress should focus on mental illness as the common denominator in recent attacks.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) blasted Congress for "lack of courage" on gun bills. (Credit: Chance Seales)
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) blasted Congress for “lack of courage” on gun bills. (Credit: Chance Seales)

“We need to fix our mental illness laws and policies. They’re outdated. That’s something we’re working on right now,” argued Ryan in his first major address as speaker of the House.

Democrats agree that more must be done to improve America’s mental health system.

Murphy, an original sponsor of the Mental Health Reform Act, wholeheartedly endorses a nationwide overhaul of the psychological safety net. But on Thursday, he rejected mental illness as the sole cause of America’s mass shootings.

Murphy passionately argued, “The United States doesn’t have a rate of mental illness that is greater than that of other first-world countries. We don’t spend less money on mental health than other countries. But we have a rate of gun violence that is 20 times that of the average first-world nation. What’s different about America is that we have more illegal guns than any other country. What’s different about America is that we have the loosest gun laws than any other country.”

Mental health reform, in a package yet to be determined, is expected to earn enough votes to pass in the House and Senate in 2016.

In series of votes lasting into Thursday evening, Senate Democrats’ gun regulation amendments were proposed, debated and defeated one by one.

Follow Chance Seales on Twitter – @ChanceSeales.

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