POLITICS
04/17/2013 08:18 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2013

Filibuster Reform Debate Reignited By Senate Gun Vote

WASHINGTON -- Wednesday's vote on expanding background checks for gun sales would have led to headlines in many other countries about a landslide victory. After all, 55-45 is not a particularly close vote.

That wide margin was achieved on background checks despite the unequal distribution of Senate votes, which are allocated two to a state regardless of population, thereby giving disproportionate power to rural areas that tend to oppose gun legislation.

Yet even 55-45 wasn't enough to pass the amendment -- not over the threat of a filibuster.

(Officially, the background check vote is recorded as 54-46. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) supported the measure, but voted against it in order to preserve the right to bring it back up.)

Following the 2012 election, the Senate had debated whether to reform the filibuster by forcing opponents of a bill, in the interests of open debate, to take the floor and speak in order to stop an up-or-down vote. That effort was defeated by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, led by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). All three voted for the doomed background checks measure.

Wednesday's vote quickly led backers to bemoan the Senate rules requiring 60 votes to break a filibuster.

"Everything needs 60 votes today. This is supposed to be a majority body," complained Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) after the amendment failed.

The story is more complicated, however. If only a majority were needed to pass an amendment, a host of measures opposed by gun control advocates would have mustered enough support to pass, including the right to concealed carry of a firearm, which urban lawmakers stridently oppose and which could have doomed the entire gun control bill. The concealed carry measure scored 57 yes votes.

"All of the R[epublican] amendments have a decent shot of getting 50," acknowledged one Democratic aide who backs filibuster reform.

Last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that his alternative gun legislation, which is much weaker than the bill Democrats brought to the floor, had majority backing and could become law without a 60-vote threshold.

The outcome of the gun debate mirrors the larger conflict hampering filibuster reform. Pro-choice senators have expressed major concerns that streamlined rules would lead to rolled-back protections for abortion rights. Those opposed to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have raised similar concerns.

"It's a gut check for those who favor rules changes," said one top Democratic Senate aide. "Background checks would have passed, but so would concealed carry and possibly other NRA-supported provisions."

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