The partisan divide on proposed gun legislation has only sharpened in the 90 days since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, and votes in the Senate's Judiciary Committee now suggest that high-profile reforms — from the most controversial to the most popular — may be in more trouble than anyone might have imagined.
Tension was obvious during today's vote. California senator Dianne Feinstein, who in 1994 championed the original ban on assault weapons, defended her updated proposal as the Judiciary Committee considered sending it to the Senate floor. To do so, the bill needed a majority of votes from the committee's ten Democrats and eight Republicans.
For Feinstein, guns are a personal issue; it was she who discovered the body of Harvey Milk after his assassination in San Francisco City Hall. When Texas Sentaor Ted Cruz today challenged Feinstein's efforts by reciting portions of the Constitution, she responded furiously.
I'm not a sixth grader. Senator, I've been on this committee for 20 years. I was a mayor for nine years. I walked in, I saw people shot. I've looked at bodies that have been shot with these weapons. I've seen the bullets that implode. In Sandy Hook, youngsters were dismembered. Look, there are other weapons. I've been up -- I'm not a lawyer, but after 20 years I've been up close and personal to the Constitution.
Feinstein's was a focused passion — an emotion that's been available in Congress with increasingly less frequency on gun legislation in the months since Newtown. That shift is perhaps most obvious when one looks at how the Judiciary Committee has voted on the four key gun measures over the past few weeks. By bill:
S.54, Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2013 (Sen. Leahy)
What's it do? Hailed as a "bipartisan bill", it would expand the definition of and toughen penalties for illegal gun sales.
Did it pass out of committee? Yes, on March 7 in an 11-7 vote. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley was the only Republican vote.
S.374, Protecting Responsible Gun Sellers Act of 2013 (Sen. Schumer)
What's it do? This is the bill Schumer introduced after failing to reach a compromise with Sen. Coburn, mandating background checks for any gun sale regardless of seller.
Did it pass out of committee? Yes, on a 10-8 party line vote on Tuesday.
S.146, School Safety Enhancements Act of 2013 (Sen. Boxer)
What's it do? The bill would broaden the Justice Department's school security program, which funds security measures on school campuses.
Did it pass out of committee? Yes, on a 14-4 vote, also on Tuesday. Republican Senators Cruz, Hatch, Grassley, and Graham supported it.
In other words, the four bills combined garnered five Republican votes. Eleven percent of "aye" votes came from the GOP. The two most controversial bills, on assault weapons and background checks, didn't get any Republican votes at all.
Those figures suggest trouble. If we apply the same ratio of Republican votes to the Senate at large, we get finally tallies as follows:
S. 54, trafficking: 61-39 (six Republican votes)
S. 374, background checks: 55-45 (zero Republican votes)
S. 146, schools: 78-22 (23 Republican votes)
S. 150, assault weapons: 55-45 (zero Republican votes)
In a body that for all practical purposes requires 60 votes for a bill to pass, even the "bipartisan" trafficking bill only squeaks by.
And that's the Democratic body. What about in the House?
S. 54, trafficking: Passes, 229-203 (29 Republican votes)
S. 374, background checks: Fails, 200-232 (zero Republican votes)
S. 146, schools: Passes, 316-116 (116 Republican votes)
S. 150, assault weapons: Fails, 200-232 (zero Republican votes)
This comparison is far too simplified, of course. Unilateral committee votes in no way imply unilateral opinion on the floor of the body. Politics is horse-trading and impressions; Republican committee members may have been trying to send a message on the background check and assault weapon bills in particular. Rejecting those two measures in committee and, presumably, on the floor, puts gun control opponents in a position of strength as any negotiations progress — a familiar position for the Senate minority.
But these results are a far cry from what an observer might have expected in the days after Newtown. They're almost certainly not what Senators like Feinstein might have expected to face when introducing their measures. In 1994, 61 senators supported the effort. That debate wasn't easy, but it was successful. Today, three months since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, the bill barely cleared a committee hearing.