Let’s go Nuclear
On April 5, 2013, Harry Reid warned that Senate rules could be changed at any time. Many thought that he was issuing this warning to Senators who threatened to obstruct even the most popular measures. For example the measure that 90% of Americans said they approved of- the idea that all gun purchasers should submit to criminal background checks. Reid promised there would be a vote on gun control and fired a warning shot in response to the growing threat of a filibuster against the bill reaching the Senate floor. It was a direct challenge to Reid’s power, but Reid’s warning was not to Senators who can read polls just as well as anyone else- but to lobbyists. Lobbyists know as Jack Abramoff said during a examination of the Senate machinations, that “playing defense is a lot easier” because while there may be 5 paths to get a bill into law, there are about 50 ways to kill it (video-6:25 in- see transcript). The reason that it is a lot easier is Senate rules that make it simple for a tiny minority of Senators- sometimes just one- to block a bill they don’t like. And this is what the makes Senate a chain- a chain only as strong as its weakest links. These rules create the very desirable situation for lobbyists with unlimited money to play an aggressive game of playing one weak link off another in order to block the laws or parts of laws they don’t like.
This debate poses a historic opportunity for those who support Democracy in America, because the Senate rules we have are arguably not just non-constitutional- it has been argued in law journals that filibuster rules are unconstitutional. Maximum leverage is possible on this Senate measure on background checks, due to the 90% support it enjoys, and the enduring image of the dozens of murdered children at Sandy Hook elementary.
There was no doubt that lobbyists would be able to muster 40 votes to block this bill. If Reid responded with sweeping rules changes advocated by Mann and Ornstein, then the lobbyists would have maybe only 7 out of those fifty ways to block laws they didn’t like.
This was why intense pressure was brought on the NRA by the DC community to prevent Reid from pulling the “nuclear option” trigger. In Washington, a collective sigh of relief was issued, and a great compromise on background checks was reached which severely watered down its power to do anything meaningful to prevent tragedies like those in New Town. As the Washington Post pointed out, one study of criminals interviewed about where they got the guns they used in crimes said that 39% came from friends or family and that the other 37% came from the black market. The negotiated Toomey amendment crippled the bill’s power by exempting sales to friends and family, and disarming law enforcement so that it will not have the records necessary to detect and meaningfully combat the enormous arms black market.
It was said that the NRA was virtually present during the entire intense discussions on the so called “compromise” between two Senators who each enjoyed the NRA’s highest rating. After the compromise, analysts talked as if the amendment they would be proposing was already passed. The reason why is that not just the White House but all the major groups fighting for background checks praised the compromise. This was the needed signal to allow the background check to be discussed, and the filibuster to prevent discussion failed in a 69-31 vote.
The supporters of background checks need to ask themselves if they wish the other needed measures should be watered down or blocked since they cannot achieve a 60 vote super majority in the Senate. How long will we have to wait for meaningful reform with these rules?
That is why the courageous move now is to force Reid to go nuclear to allow a majority of Senators to pass the background checks bill. All crippling amendments like Toomey’s must be voted down. The NRA will use all its might to gather 40 votes to block the background check bill, and there is a reasonable chance they will find those votes if the Bill remains unamended. At that point the pressure will be on Reid to change the rules.
The bloodied faces of those 26 victims as Sandy Hook elementary, and the 90% majority of Americans provides a moment of maximum leverage to force Democrats in the Senate to do the right thing and put an end to the non constitutional Senate rules which effectively block democracy in America.
This is the time to force the Rules to Change. There will be no more ideal moment of maximum leverage as this. Don’t water down the background checks. Allow 60 votes to be required on amendments, and schedule the assault weapons ban and clip capacity amendments last.
Then press the nuclear button. Change the rules and eliminate the 60 vote majority requirement. This will allow passage without demanding that right wing Dems facing 2014 races make dangerous votes.