This week's discussion of the Senate vote on gun reforms is like sportscasters talking about going for it on a fourth down. If the bill fails, the game is over for new regulations. If it passes, victory still isn't guaranteed: they'll need to sort out an effective proposal that could pass the much-more-conservative House of Representatives. Right now, the prospect of that happening is low.
Any gun bill has to go through Speaker of the House John Boehner — a prospect that worries both advocates and opponents of new reforms. To date, Boehner has only promised one course of action, as Reuters reports: a long review of any legislation passed by the Senate.
[T]he Republican speaker is planning what could be a months-long review of the bill that likely would involve chipping away at gun-related measures in the plan while pushing for proposals to identify and treat the mentally ill as the best hope for a compromise plan to reduce gun violence. …
Boehner has pledged that the House will act on any gun bill that emerges from the Senate. He has indicated that the House's review would allow a lengthy debate without many of the deadlines and restrictions that usually guide the chamber's work.
This is more than the House has to do, of course — it could summarily ignore the Senate proposal entirely, which is precisely what some Republicans advocate. And, to date, that's largely what House Republicans have done, with The Hill reporting last week that senior aides to the caucus indicate the topic of gun legislation has "rarely come up in leadership meetings."
It's likely that any House Republican proposal would focus on restricting access to firearms for the mentally ill. This course of action has been consistently endorsed by the NRA, which The Economist describes as the group "trying to appear constructive without allowing any gun rules to change." Reuters makes a similar case, suggesting that the idea lets Republicans "back a winning issue — one with broad bipartisan support that is likely to make it through the legislative gauntlet — without compromising their strongly held support of gun owners' rights." A bill with mental health restrictions was introduced in the Senate and is backed by a dozen senators of both parties (including some with less-than-robust records of advocating for mental health legislation). The NRA has endorsed the bill.
Not that there haven't been any proposals in the House. House Democrats have proposed legislation that correlates to the Senate bills. Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, for example, has introduced bills aimed at curbing gun trafficking (similar to the Senate proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand), a ban on assault weapons (like Sen. Dianne Feinstein's apparently doomed bill), and a expansion of background checks. This last measure largely mirrors the expansive proposal from Sen. Chuck Schumer — a measure that wouldn't pass if voted on, but which has been replaced as a favorite by the compromise proposal from Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey.
That compromise measure is expected to be introduced in the House today or tomorrow by Rep. Peter King, also of New York. Politico reports that King will join Rep. Mike Thompson of California to unveil the Manchin-Toomey proposal in the other chamber.
He said the legislation will “replicate” what was agreed to by those senators, a bipartisan deal that expands background checks for commercial gun purchases, including those made at gun shows.
This is not a break from tradition for King, who in 2011 proposed a measure limiting gun possession near members of Congress, following the shooting of then-Rep. Gabby Giffords. In 2009, he supported a measure that would close the "gun show loophole" — one aspect of the Manchin-Toomey compromise.
Bearing in mind the composition of the House — 232 Republicans to 201 Democrats — and the struggle the Senate is undergoing to put together the 60 votes it needs to pass its proposals, it's clear that legislation that passes the House may look nothing like the Senate package. Last week, Politico outlined the reasons compromise is a trickier proposal in the House: more frequent elections, less stable seats, fewer leaders looking for higher office. Representatives understand that.
“It’s clear that the House Republicans have abdicated responsibility for legislation to the Senate,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a three-decade veteran of Washington. “And [the Senate is] looking at trying to do things on a bipartisan basis, which is the only way to pass laws. I’ve seen very little in the House that shows they want to do anything on a bipartisan basis.”
For gun control advocates, this means that if the House acts on guns, it's likely to result in a far less stringent policy or set of policies than even the Senate proposals, which are seen by many as themselves woefully empty. New York's Jonathan Chait argues that point:
It is true that a bill is moving in the Senate with some bipartisan support. It is not a bill aimed at America’s epidemic of routine gun violence. It’s a bill aimed at mitigating a tiny slice of it, by limiting the ability of mentally ill people to legally purchase guns. “Limiting” does not mean preventing. To make the bill politically acceptable, giant exceptions had to be created, including the exemption of private sales. "The bill is riddled with holes, and frankly it's hard to know what it's going to accomplish,” UCLA law professor Adam Winkler tells The Wall Street Journal.
The president has consistently tried to set expectations among his base. His State of the Union call for there to be a vote on gun reforms will apparently be successful; the House will almost certainly vote on something, a pretty low bar for a legislative body. If it fails to enact any sweeping (or even moderate) reform, that vote may be the best thing the president gets from the entire debate — something that vulnerable House Republicans will have to answer for when next year's elections roll around.