Baby Step

So the first Senate skirmish on gun legislation is over, and the good guys won, as WaPo reports:

The Senate voted 68 to 31 to proceed to debate on legislation to curb gun violence, beginning what observers expect to be weeks of argument on the most consequential congressional action on firearm regulations since the 1990s.

Sixteen Republicans joined with 52 Democrats to approve a motion to proceed. Two Democrats joined with 29 Republicans to oppose the motion.

The two Democrats voting against cloture were prime ’14 targets from red states full of voters fond of their shooting irons: Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska. More importantly, among the 29 Republicans supporting the filibuster was Mitch McConnell.

That helps answer a question I asked myself when this filibuster arose: hey, didn’t the deal Harry Reid cut with McConnell more or less outlaw filibusters on motions to proceed?

Looking back at an explanation of that deal by Ezra Klein at the time, it’s more obvious than ever how little “filibuster reform” Reid actually accomplished:

[T]he deal Reid struck with McConnell doesn’t end the filibuster against the motion to proceed. Rather, it creates two new pathways for moving to a new bill. In one, the majority leader can, with the agreement of the minority leader and seven senators from each party, sidestep the filibuster when moving to a new bill. In the other, the majority leader can short-circuit the filibuster against moving to a new bill so long as he allows the minority party to offer two germane amendments. Note that in all cases, the minority can still filibuster the bill itself.

A pro-reform aide I spoke to was agog. “Right now, you have to negotiate with McConnell to get on a bill,” he said. “Tomorrow, if this passes, you still need to negotiate with McConnell to get on a bill. It changes nothing on how we move forward.”

In other words, any time McConnell supports a filibuster, as he did this one, you”ll almost certainly have to resort to cloture. And then you’ll need another cloture vote in order to obtain a final vote after days and maybe weeks of listening to Republican senators work with the gun lobby to whip up a hate frenzy over the gutting of the Second Amendment.

The fragility of today’s accomplishment is best illustrated by the cascade of Republican “yea” voters on cloture making it clear they were simply voting to “allow a debate.” That doesn’t mean they won’t join the next filibuster (one which the NRA has indicated it will “score”), much less vote for Manchin-Toomey. Check out these remarks from cloture supporter Lindsey Graham, as reported by TPM’s Sahil Kapur:

“The legislation can still be filibustered after today in the United States Senate,” said Graham, who voted for the motion to begin debate on the gun legislation. “And even if gun control legislation passes the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate it is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.”

I’ve gotten a bit of flack from a progressive friend or two who think I’ve been insufficiently enthusiastic about Manchin-Toomey. To be clear, I think if it were actually to become law, it would indeed be an important step forward towards sane gun regulation, particularly given the stranglehold the NRA has possessed on the issue for so long. But surviving a filibuster on the motion to proceed to a debate in the Senate is at the very most a baby step, so we don’t know yet whether Manchin-Toomey represents a breakthrough or just another compromise on a road to ultimate defeat.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.