POLITICS
03/12/2013 09:07 am ET Updated Mar 12, 2013

Assault Weapons Ban To Clear Political Hurdle, But Path Through Senate Remains Uncertain

WASHINGTON -- A ban on the production and sale of certain assault weapons will clear a major political hurdle on Thursday, as Democratic lawmakers say they have the votes necessary to move the legislation through the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Once through that committee, however, the measure is likely to hit another, likely insurmountable snag, in the form of the 60-vote threshold in the U.S. Senate, where the bill faces skepticism among moderate Democrats. And that could leave leadership in a bind, as another major component of President Barack Obama's gun policy agenda -- a ban on high-capacity magazines -- is part of the bill.

As of now, Democrats are waxing optimistic about the prospects of moving through Congress various forms of gun policy, which continue to perform well in public opinion polls.

Already, a bill that would strengthen the anti-trafficking law has made it through committee with Republican support. Another bill that would expand background checks for private gun purchases suffered a setback when the chief Republican negotiator, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), backed away at the last minute, concerned over provisions that would require a sales record for transactions. But Coburn explicitly said he wasn't done talking. And even then, aides working on the bill say that there are other Republicans who will back the bill in its final state.

The Assault Weapons Ban, easily the most controversial component of the president's agenda, is a trickier political proposition. In recent days, it's been made clear that the bill has the necessary support to make it through the Judiciary Committee. The chairman of that committee, Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), confirmed last week that he would vote yes, albeit with some reservations.

"I have some problems with an overall legislation, but I'm going to go vote for it to get the matter out and [send it to] the floor so it's not just those of us in this room will get a chance to talk about it or act on it but the whole Senate -- all hundred of us," said the Vermont Democrat, who had been coy about his intentions.

The only other Democratic question mark on the committee, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), plans to vote yes as well, his office confirmed to The Huffington Post.

That means that the measure should make it through the committee and to the Senate floor by a 10-to-8 vote (assuming that Republicans on the committee oppose it en masse, as is expected). Lawmakers expect a vote to occur on Thursday, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the bill's sponsor, is tied up with intelligence oversight issues until then.

Once through committee, things get complicated. Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), didn't say whether or not Republicans would mount a filibuster of the measure, although it's widely assumed they will. He did, however, suggest that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) might end up deciding to keep the bill off the floor to spare his moderate members -- and himself -- a tough vote.

"While the administration acknowledged that there is much more to be done to enforce existing law, Sen. McConnell’s first test of any new legislation the majority leader decides to bring before the Senate will be on whether or not it infringes on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms," emailed Stewart, with deliberate use of italics.

"That’s dumb," responded Adam Jentelson, a spokesman for Reid. "Reid has said publicly a bunch of times that he’ll make sure the Assault Weapons Ban gets a vote on the floor, irrespective of whether it passed judiciary or not."

The question facing Reid, indeed, isn't whether or not to give the ban a vote, but rather what form the bill should take when it is presented for consideration. If the legislation goes forward as it is, it would also include a ban on high-capacity magazines. Lawmakers and aides are more bullish on that provision getting the necessary support in the Senate than they are about the AWB as a whole. As such, they don't want to risk the provision going down with the entire bill. Reid could seek to strip the measure so that it is considered on its own. Or he could consider a separate piece of legislation to ban high-capacity magazines, authored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), that already exists.

Talks of strategy, Jentelson said, have not gotten that far. Another top Senate aide, meanwhile, said that regardless of which strategic path Reid chooses, the expectation is that he'll move quickly.

"It is a safe assumption to think sooner rather than later on the Senate floor activity," the aide said.

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