WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans who adamantly oppose new gun restrictions may stall votes on each amendment to the legislation for days, a Senate Democratic leadership aide warned Thursday in a memo.
Many Republicans who are at least somewhat supportive of new gun laws have said they would only go along if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) permits what they described as a full and open amendment process. That means plenty of opportunities to offer tweaks to the legislation and line up votes.
But the memo warned that some senators among the dozen who have vowed to filibuster gun legislation are threatening to maintain their opposition not just to the overall bill, but to every amendment along the way. They could do that, said the aide's memo, by demanding 60-member cloture votes at every step of the process, potentially burning through four days for every single amendment.
"Sen. Reid has said repeatedly that he wants to facilitate an open amendment process on the gun violence bill," the memo said. "But a small minority of Republicans (you can guess who) are threatening to force us to spend up to four days to set up each amendment vote."
Usually in the Senate when there are numerous amendments, both sides negotiate a "unanimous consent" agreement, or U.C., and hold a "vote-a-rama" on a string of them, one after the other, as they did last month in passing a budget resolution.
"But if we are unable to secure a U.C., we have to file cloture on each individual amendment," the note said, explaining how the slowdown would work. "That would take up to four days per amendment vote: we file cloture on Amendment X on Monday. Tuesday is the intervening day, and a cloture vote on the motion to end debate on the amendment occurs Wednesday morning (60-vote threshold). If cloture is invoked, there are another 30 hours of debate, pushing the final passage vote into Thursday evening."
A Republican leadership aide, speaking anonymously to be frank, said the memo was one of "stupidest things" he'd ever heard, and said the scenario was mythical. The aide argued that any legislative insider should know that the Senate does not even make an amendment part of the pending business unless there's a consent agreement first, and neither side makes an agreement if the other will stall for four days.
"I'm embarrassed for whoever thought that up," the GOP aide said, adding that the more realistic scenario would be a failure of the sides to agree on what they would allow to become pending.
Either way, a standoff over gun bill amendments could sink new filibuster rules the Senate agreed to in January -- a deal that many reformers decried as too weak. If the deal had eliminated the 30-hour periods or required talking filibusters, for instance, the threat of four-day amendments would be moot.
Under rules that were passed, leaders can squash filibusters on motions to get on to bills and speed up the process -- but only by giving each side two amendments, each with simple majority votes.
It would be risky for Democrats to try that with the gun bill, because Republicans may be able to find 51 votes for measures that most Democrats would find toxic, such as allowing concealed-carry permits to be valid anywhere in America. Indeed, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said recently that he could get a simple majority for an alternative GOP-led gun bill that he is working on.
Democrats could resort to other tactics that would limit the number of amendments to only those that Democrats want -- a process known as "filling the tree" -- but that would also seem to run counter to the filibuster agreement, and would risk antagonizing Republicans who support some gun legislation. "That would probably blow up the whole bill," the GOP aide said.
If push comes to shove, Reid would abide by his pledge to hold some key votes on certain amendments Democrats want, but which are likely to fail, the Democratic aide said.
"To be clear, Sen. Reid will ensure that we hold votes on the assault weapons ban and limits to high-capacity magazines," said the aide. "But having a truly open amendment process is going to require Republican cooperation, not filibusters on each individual amendment. And yes, we are still seeking an agreement to actually get on the bill."
The Senate on Thursday voted to begin debate on a motion to proceed to debate on the gun bill, starting a 30-hour clock for holding the vote on actually proceeding. The first substantive vote -- likely an amendment to expand background checks -- would not happen until Tuesday.