WASHINGTON -- I saw Vice President Joe Biden in the Senate late last week and asked him about the chances of passing the gun reform legislation expanding background checks. Usually the soul of confidence and good cheer, Biden gave me a weary smile. "I've got my fingers crossed," he said.
That wasn't enough. By a vote of 54-46 -- short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster -- the U.S. Senate proved once again that Washington is the place where change goes to die.
This wasn't merely the Senate being what the Founding Fathers envisioned: the "cooling saucer" for the hot coffee of legislative emotion. This was the Senate, constricted by its own rules and the laser-focused fire of the National Rifle Association, being the slaughterhouse of public will.
It was clear both to reason and arithmetic that most voters wanted to close the so-called gun show loophole. Indeed, the NRA leader who now opposes doing so, Wayne LaPierre, once publicly supported just that proposal.
But it was not to be in the Congress of today. The vote last week to allow debate on the measure was a false dawn, and almost everyone on Capitol Hill in both parties knew it.
The NRA had given members a "pass" on that vote, saying that it would not count the vote as a betrayal come Election Day. But the group said the opposite about Wednesday's vote: This one counted -- and the near score of Republicans who voted to allow debate shrank to four for passage of the measure.
Democrats could see the arithmetic, and the four who voted with the NRA -- all from rural red states -- saw no reason to risk their own necks.
There were some profiles in courage, including Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) -- NRA favorites who took it upon themselves to buck their traditional supporters. But there weren't enough of them.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), not a man with a light touch, called the families of the Newtown, Conn., victims "props," as if they, by sitting in the Senate gallery to watch the vote, were somehow interfering with the legislative process. Actually, it could be argued that the ones interfering with the legislative process were the senators themselves.
In the Rose Garden after the vote, President Barack Obama stood with those Newtown family members. He wore a scowl and spoke with the passion of righteous indignation and the sure knowledge that most of America agreed with him.
He was unusually harsh on his fellow politicians. Those who had voted no had "caved to the pressure," Obama said, and had "failed" the test of courageous leadership in a crisis.
He followed the name calling with a pledge, in essence, to make gun reform a central issue in the 2014 midterm elections.
A president who had come to Washington promising change, and who had fitfully effected some, was now promising to try again. He had stopped legislating and had started campaigning.
Once again, Obama was promising change you could believe in -- and in this case he has the public, if not the current Congress, on his side.
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