03/20/2013 05:44 pm ET

John Boehner Holds All The Cards On Gun Control

WASHINGTON -- The primary problem facing President Barack Obama's ambitious gun control package is not the timidity of conservative Senate Democrats and the disinclination of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to challenge his own party's objectors.

Even if Reid had chosen to include the assault weapons ban in a broader gun control bill, instead of axing that plan as he did on Tuesday, and even if he had demanded fidelity from all his members and won over five Republicans to reach the magical 60 votes, it wouldn't have resolved the biggest hurdle. In the end, gun control advocates still need to earn the majority support of a Republican-run House of Representatives for anything to become law. As of now, it's unclear how they can or will go about doing that.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has been coy about what he will do with gun control legislation once it makes it through the Senate. For weeks, he said he would "consider" whatever bill the upper chamber produced. On "Meet the Press" last Sunday, he said he would "review" it. Spokesman Michael Steel told HuffPost there wasn't a distinction between the two terms.

On Wednesday, however, Boehner gave his strongest signal to date that he would seek to enforce current gun laws rather than pass new ones.

"Laws don't mean much if they're not going to be enforced," he told CNN's "The Lead With Jake Tapper." "We've got plenty of laws on the books. Let's go and enforce them before we just load up more laws on law-abiding citizens."

The fact that Boehner serves as the potential stopgap for any prospective legislation puts the choices facing Reid into perspective. How, after all, do you persuade the speaker to move a bill that he doesn't have to move?

The answer to that question, gun control advocates have concluded, is to produce a piece of Senate legislation that has as much Republican support as possible, instead of a bill that passes by a slim margin.

"The more Republican support the Senate package has, the harder it is for the House leadership to act like it never happened, which is, I'm sure, part of the reason for taking the assault weapons ban out of the bill," said Mark Glaze, Director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

This legislative strategy explains why Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) spent weeks trying to secure Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-Okla.) support for his background check bill. Schumer already had one likely Republican co-sponsor -- Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) -- and could have pursued others who were philosophically in line with the bill's goals. Coburn, on the other hand, has an "A" rating from the NRA. If he were to have signed on as a co-sponsor, aides predicted that at least 15 other Republicans would have joined him.

Coburn ultimately backed away from the talks over a disagreement about whether and how to keep records of gun sales. A Senate aide said that he and Schumer have not resumed negotiations since, and Democrats are now looking for other Republican co-sponsors.

For the first time since legislative talks began, there is chatter that the background check provision might not be part of the baseline bill, and instead be considered as an amendment. One top Democratic Senate aide, however, told The Huffington Post that the party is still more likely to include the provision in the broader package, out of the belief that it's better to pass a stronger bill by the slimmest of margins than water it down to the point of uselessness in an attempt to win broader support.

But that only leads strategists back to the original question: If a bill barely passes through the Senate, how do you then get Boehner to bring it up to the House?

"There is a long time between now and the August recess," Glaze said. "We have dozens of field staff spreading out to target states where they will spend months talking to constituents in these districts ... making the case that the incentive for the House leadership to ignore a once-in-a-generation debate is very small."

Putting aside the possibility that this fight could extend all the way to August, Glaze does have data behind him. Public polling shows immense support for background checks. And gun control groups have begun opening up their wallets to fund television campaigns in support of that reform. The president's leftover campaign apparatus, Organizing for Action, has made background checks its top agenda item, aides there say. And, unlike the assault weapons ban, Democratic Party leadership seems eager to lean in to the politics of this debate.

"The Republicans have high exposure, low opportunity," said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

"We have done a comprehensive analysis, district by district, on the impact of those issues," he said of background checks. "We have very few districts where a vote by our members will have a negative impact. We have quite a few districts where a vote has a positive impact. The Republicans have a mirror image, a reverse image. They have a bunch of districts where voting, for example, for sensible gun violence protection opens them up to a primary from the right and voting against it hurts them with independent and moderate voters. When you put it all together, it creates opportunity for us."



Speakers Of The House (1920-Present)