President Barack Obama has barnstormed the country promising action on gun control legislation, and on Wednesday the Senate acted — to vote down the heart of the bill.
The president is vowing that the fight for tighter gun control measures is not over. But Obama’s cache in Congress has always been low, and it appears his strategy for continuing to push the issue largely rests on something that has proved elusive to him in other recent policy fights, including this one: public pressure.
As relatives of the victims of December’s Newtown, Conn., shooting looked on from the Senate gallery — and someone shouted “Shame on you!” — the chamber fell five supporters short of the 60-vote threshold on a bipartisan background check bill that would end the gun show exemption and expand checks to online sales. The Senate also failed to adopt new limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines, and it declined to renew an expired assault weapons ban.
Despite public declarations of optimism from supporters on background checks, sources said privately that the Senate may never be able to pass those items. Republicans and many red-state Democrats — four of whom defected on the background check bill — still fear the repercussions of crossing the National Rifle Association.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was on the Hill for the vote, quoted a member acknowledging that Americans overwhelmingly support background checks. “‘Ninety percent thinks it’s a good idea but they’re not going to vote for me or against me because of how I vote on this,’” Biden quoted the member as saying. He did not name the lawmaker.
Biden later said members complain that they have to look the NRA in the eye, but he noted that they are going to have to look gun violence victims in the eye, too.
But that line of persuasion clearly didn’t work. Neither did the White House’s full-court press in the final 24 hours before the Senate votes began. Obama picked up the phone and called senators personally and Biden, in addition to lobbying members, presided over the vote on a background check deal brokered by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania.
“I hope to God that there’s 60 people up there that have the courage to stand up and understand that this doesn’t take that much courage,” Biden said in an online chat moments before leaving for the Capitol.
The president gave an impassioned speech in the Rose Garden shortly after the background check provision failed. Saying gun rights groups like the NRA “willfully lied” about the Manchin-Toomey agreement, Obama suggested that some senators caved to the pressure and looked for any excuse to vote against it. But even as he pronounced the Senate vote “a pretty shameful day for Washington,” he also said it was “just round one.”